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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

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In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.

563 pages, Paperback

First published August 9, 2005

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About the author

Charles C. Mann

43 books963 followers
Charles C. Mann is a correspondent for Science and The Atlantic Monthly, and has cowritten four previous books including Noah’s Choice: The Future of Endangered Species and The Second Creation . A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, he has won awards from the American Bar Association, the Margaret Sanger Foundation, the American Institute of Physics, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, among others. His writing was selected for The Best American Science Writing 2003 and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003. He lives with his wife and their children in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,625 reviews
Profile Image for Rick Riordan.
Author 495 books402k followers
August 22, 2018
My favorite recent history book, Mann surveys the breadth and complexity of indigenous cultures in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. Some of this research was familiar to me. When I taught American history in the 2000s, I would start with such 'snapshots' of Cahokia, the Olmecs, the Serpent Mound, the Maya, the great trade networks that connected the continent. But even that information was hard to find. Good luck finding even a mention of it in the school textbooks. Despite having some knowledge, I was blown away, again, by how populated and cultivated the American landscape was before the cataclysmic arrival of Europeans and their diseases. This book blows up many stubborn, out-dated theories like the singular Bering land-bridge migration, the idea that the land was 'mostly empty' when Europeans arrived, and the idea that most indigenous peoples were 'simple' hunter gatherers. It also gives us a good look at just how stubborn and resistant traditional Euro-American scholarship has been to accepting any new information that didn't fit established theories about the indigenous peoples. None of this will comes as a surprise to indigenous readers themselves, I'm sure, but for me, it was a refreshing, amazing read. I knew nothing about the vast, sophisticated terraforming societies of sub-Amazonian South America, or the pre-Incan empires, or the way that hunter-gatherer people intentionally crafted the landscape to better serve their needs. Mann gave me a tantalizing glimpse into a complex, beautiful pre-Columbian world.
Profile Image for Brendan.
54 reviews79 followers
December 29, 2011
The survey of current thinking on the population of the americas via that Beringia land bridge and the subsequent summary of the evolutions of early american society is interesting.

But the repeated comparisons between american society and eurasian society are really fraught and often belabored. The comparisons between the two hemisphere's agriculture and domesticable animals are fine, but the assertion that Aztec (apparently it's more politically correct to call them Mexica) philosophy was as rich as medieval europe's is ludicrous, especially given that such a huge volume of Aztec codices have been preserved and deciphered. The Aztecs did some respectable philosophical work, but Mann's exaggerations aside, they didn't come close to rivaling the work done in ancient Greece, to say nothing of the subsequent 2,000 years of philosophy in Europe (with a nod towards Middle Eastern contributions as well) that took place between the death of Aristotle and the discovery of the new world. Today, it may be possible to take a mesoamerican philosophy course in some university departments, but there are very few (if any) lasting or novel contributions to the the broader discipline of philosophy to be found in Aztec (or Mayan, or Incan) philosophy. There's no shame in that: it has been said that all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. So why feel the need to exaggerate and mislead readers by making politically correct assertions that have no basis in reality?

Also, the distinction the author draws between guilt and responsibility (i.e. 'we' should not feel guilty that Cortes introduced smallpox and wiped out 95% of american indians, but 'we' have some responsibility for this) is way too underdeveloped to be taken seriously. I don't necessarily think that the discussion is even necessary, but it is not an uncommon discussion in US politics, and Mann consciously decides to wade into these waters. First, he never defines 'we,' though it seems he means whites of european descent residing in the new world (and maybe Europeans back in Europe who benefitted from mercantilism/colonialism? It's not clear). And then he never explains how responsibility can be justly divided among descendants; how someone of, say, direct Cortez lineage might have a different level of 'responsibility' than a descendant of an Irish family with no seafaring anscestors and no pedigree in the New World until the late 19th century. And if they have the same 'responsibility,' then does a modern day Chinese or Indian immigrant to the new world also have some responsibility? All unclear, and the absence of even any contemplation of these points leaves the book's attempts at constructing a morality of European/American Indian interaction disappointingly hollow. Mann decided the topic was worthy enough to merit some discussion; it is unfortunate he failed to do the topic any justice.
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,225 followers
March 26, 2013
This was like a coloring book of pre-Pilgrim North America for me in that it filled in a lot of unanswered questions and brilliantly illuminated some areas of my knowledge that were mere outlines. It stays within the lines and makes my early attempts at coloring in the past look like spidery, seizure-induced scrawlings.

Being originally from New England, I'm well aware that there were inhabitants here long before the Europeans arrived. Early on in school we were inundated with stories of Samoset and Squanto, the first Native Americans to make contact with the Plymouth Colony pilgrims, and how in 1621 they strolled into the transplanted Englishmen's village and a big party broke out, thus began the tradition of Thanksgiving. I was (mis)taught in a Massachusetts classroom where heritage and history are king, so much was made of this. We were led to believe the story by elementary schoolteachers who probably wholeheartedly believed it themselves. What about the Virginia Colony of 1607 and their contact with the native inhabitants? It failed, so sweep it under the rug. Something tells me this version of America's founding by Europeans was not the one being taught in Virginia at the time...

Never was explained how the two natives could speak English (from Englishmen fishing off of the Maine coast and, in Squanto's case, from abduction and internment for seven years in England) or anything that happened in the Americas prior to the pilgrims landing. Oh sure there was talk of Incas and Mayans and their all important maize. But the extent, the sheer size of the native tribes, clans, and cosmopolitan societies of the Americas, north and south, and how Europe brought it all down upon their heads, none of this was discussed. Why? Because even during the late 1970s and early 80s when the movement to turn the Native Americans into mystical caretakers of Mother Earth, there was still a prejudicial sense of 'white is right' prevalent, at least in the neighborhood I grew up in. The other reason is a plain lack of knowledge. My simple teachers simply did not know. They can't wholly be blamed. The information wasn't readily available or flat-out wasn't available. School books were traditional and outdated. The grey-area material was swept under the rug. Now there is less grey-area material - advances in technology and archaeological practices have greatly advanced our knowledge of the past in just a few short decades - but there's still plenty of unknown patches of time in the western hemisphere. In 1491 Mann does not shy away from them.

Having said that, it should be noted that this is not just about North America. No, in fact more time is spent on everything below it. Through discovered texts and deciphered inscriptions there's just more known about Mesoamerica than the other areas, so yes, there are pages upon pages about those Incas and Mayans.

In general what I love about 1491 is that it doesn't take the Indians' side or the Europeans'. It doesn't try to cast a glowing angelic light upon the native inhabitants to transform them into woodland spirits whose only concern was the preservation of the trees and the birds, etc blah blah blah (Earth Day is quaint and misguided, but I digress...), nor does Mann attempt to attack or defend the actions of the Europeans. All is more of a statement of fact or, if lacking concrete evidence, a statement of possibility based on sound theory.

Sure, this distills oceans of scholarly study down to a more manageable duck pond, but it never tries to pretend it is doing otherwise. Mann is no pretender to vaunted erudition. He's a journalist who's done some research. He's a guy who realized his own grade school education was lacking, and when he found out the moldy stuff he was taught way back when was still being taught to his son he decided to do something about it. I'm glad for it.
Profile Image for Douglas Hunter.
Author 20 books25 followers
July 30, 2007
As someone who writes professionally in this area (unabashed plug: watch for God's Mercies, Doubleday Canada, in October 07) I have high praise for this title, a long-overdue assessment of native culture and civilization before (and at) contact with Europeans. I'm still reading it, but I've been impressed so far.[I've now finished, see below.] Anyone who enjoyed it should also consider Elaine Dewar's Bones, which explores the archaeological controversy of how long people have been in the New World. (She wholeheartedly supports the "a really, really long time" camp.)
My only critique of 1491, and it is minor, is that the author I feel overstates the case that Europeans (mainly English) did not enjoy a military superiority over the natives, that their powder weapons were ineffective. This is a rather generous reading of native military capability. The English army did away with the longbow in 1598, and for all their problems, powder weapons were a clear advantage. Frenchman Samuel de Champlain used just three harquebus to devastating effect against the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) in 1609, and in his trade and colonization monopoly, secured in 1612 under the Prince de Condé, the terms specifically forbid anyone to trade powder weapons with the natives, under penalty of a 10,000 livre fine and corporal punishment. One of the key factors in European inability not to immediately conquer or eradicate native populations by force was the sheer lack of firepower. (They also needed them as trade partners.) These commercial ventures (English and French in particular) didn't have the full might of their states behind them in the early contact period. Had England or France made up their mind to truly "conquer" these shores and their peoples, they would have marched through them much like de Soto did in the southeastern US in the mid 16th century, for good or for ill (pretty well for ill). But an idea the author does well to advance is the fact that coastal nations or tribes that made contact with the newcomers often came to decide that they should secure a strategic advantage and enlist the newcomers' aid in fighting their own enemies. It was a complicated time, and 1491 is a worthy overview.
Having now finished, I'll still recommend it. For those interested in precontact cultures north of 49 (as in half of North America) the lack of material about French Canada is a little disappointing. There's nothing about the much-debated vanishing of the Iroquoian-speaking residents of the St. Lawrence (at Hochelaga and Stadacona) who were there in large numbers in palisade villages when Cartier first visited in the 1530s, but had vanished utterly by the time Champlain showed up in 1603. But that's nitpicky, considering the enormous scope of this work.
Profile Image for Hana.
522 reviews293 followers
April 29, 2015
See updated alternative reading recommendations below.

Well, I finally finished it. There were some interesting factoids, such as the theory that much of the Amazon rainforest was planted by humans, but even then the data were not marshaled in a convincing, coherent fashion. Over all, the book was badly organized, the chapter and section headings provided no clue to their purpose, the text jumped wildly across continents and thousands of years for no logical reason and technical terms were too often introduced but never defined (I had to look up MFAC in the index to discover it meant Maritime Foundation of Andean Civilization). By far the best part of the book were the aerial photographs that clearly showed the size and complexity of South America's ancient farms and cities. The maps were useful as well, but aides such as a pronunciation guide or a timeline were among the many missing elements.

And it's not just the organization of the book that is a challenge; the writing style is difficult as well. One sentence goes on for 27 lines. The author mixes metaphors with such abandon that I often despaired of untangling the meaning: "Peru is the cow-catcher on the train of continental drift. Leading South America's slow, grinding march toward Australia, its coastline hits the ocean floor and crumples up like a carpet shoved into a chair-leg."

I simply cannot fathom why so many people thought this book was so wonderful. I will have to look elsewhere for a coherent analysis of this topic.

Updated Recommendations:

For an excellent analysis of some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in North America, consider Settlement Of The Americas A New Prehistory--it is more scholarly as well as being much more readable and interesting.

Timothy Egan's Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis is an interesting introduction to one of the most definitive chronicles of Native American cultures in North America. Curtis' entire multi-volume original work is available online at this Northwestern University site.

I have not read this one yet, but I hear good things about The Last Days of the Incas from my friends at the History Book Club.

The 1491 factoid about the Amazon rainforests having been heavily cultivated for extended periods of time seems likely to be correct. See this fascinating article about the rainforest's maroon people from National Geographic.
Profile Image for N.K. Jemisin.
Author 133 books53.5k followers
June 11, 2010
Mindblowing. Everyone should read this book. It's amazing to me how much historians got wrong -- and what this book illuminates is why historians get such things wrong. Some of it is flat-out racism and ethnocentrism -- historians' tendency to dismiss oral tradition as crap, for example, when it turns out most Indian groups have done a good job of keeping track of their own past. Some of it, however, was simply lost knowledge that's only now being rediscovered, with the aid of modern technology and research methods. Changed the way I view the world. Truly stunning stuff.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,291 reviews21.7k followers
March 11, 2019
You know – in fourteen-hundred-and-ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. So, 1491 was a particularly interesting year for the inhabitants of the Americas. This is a remarkably similar story to that told in Dark Emu. It is almost as if everything I’ve ever known about pre-European settlement in Australia and the Americas has been, well, utter rubbish. Which is more than a little annoying.

What is very interesting here is that we seem to have grossly under-estimated both the population of the Americas prior to European arrival and also the extent of farming – including farming in the Amazon basin, a particularly interesting part of this book. The author suggests that the local Indian populations in the Amazon effectively created the forest to meet human needs and that this was then able to support a much larger population than we would otherwise have estimated and one much more ‘advanced’ than we assume too.

All of this has consequences and implications, of course, because we could and should learn a lot from peoples who have farmed the land for thousands of years before we arrived and who did so in ways that appear to have been much more sustainable than anything we have achieved since.

This book covers far too much – in fact, so much so that after a while my head was almost spinning. We travel across both continents. Sometimes there is so much detail involving the pre-European arrival political struggles and murders that it pays to remember that if the Indians had invaded the UK at around this same time they’d have come just after the War of the Roses. You know, what I’m saying is that Europe was in no position to criticise other countries and their monarchies for their internecine murders and battles.

The thing that has shifted how I understand this history involves a kind of key provided by this book to understanding what happened. Basically Europeans were filthy since we lived with lots of animals and so we brought horrible, horrible diseases to the Americas. The local populations had no defence against such diseases and also had a remarkably narrow gene pool (are pools narrow? Maybe it was a shallow pool.) Either way, it seems that up to 95% of the local populations were killed by diseases like small pox. We can hardly imagine what that would mean. The debate still rages about whether the Europeans intentionally spread these diseases (although, another book I have read on this said that James the First referred to small pox as a gift from God – so, it wasn’t as if we were particularly upset about the inferno that we allowed to sweep before us as we arrived in the New World. What is clear is that not only did the population collapse, entire civilisations were brought to their knees. And as we arrived we often assumed that what we found was what had been, with us completely unaware we were witnessing societies suffering under dire stress. The author makes it very clear that what we were seeing was a grossly distorted vision of what had previously existed. I’ve never fully understood the implications of this.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that some disease came to Melbourne, where I live, a city of about 5 million people, and it wiped out 95% of everyone. Obviously, all of the normal things you might expect to be going on in a city would come to a screaming halt. You would be unlikely to be able to catch a tram, for instance, or buy milk at the local supermarket if 19 in every 20 people suddenly stopped living. And the people left would be without nearly everyone they have known and loved – so, not particularly happy, if you know what I mean. But that would only be the beginning of the problems. Let’s say none of the animals died in this catastrophe. The estimate is that 62% of households in Melbourne have pets, and there are 20 dogs per 100 people, which would mean all of a sudden there would be 20 dogs for every five people. If their owners are dead, then presumably many of these dogs would be pretty hungry and some of them would be out and about looking for food, probably in packs. If you arrived a year or so after the catastrophe, Melbourne would look like a pretty frightening place with lots of hungry and presumably angry dogs walking the streets. You might wonder what the hell was the matter with these people that they had so many damn dogs and didn’t even bother to look after them.

This is effectively what is suggested to have happened with bison. That is, that the removal of humans from farm lands across the continent provided bison with an ideal situation to go through a population explosion. And this then left the Europeans who arrived assuming the Indians spent all of their time hunting bison without ever seeming to diminish the population of them, whereas the bison were actually just taking advantage of the Indian farms that were now no longer farms due to the Indians having died off due to disease.

There is a bit of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods where he talks of the extinction of various types of birds that had swarmed in such profusion when Europeans arrived that the Europeans basically went nuts killing and eating them. This is presented as proof of European disregard for nature – something that is self-evidently true, by the way. But in this case the birds were also an oddity. Because the Indian farmers had died, the corn harvests were left in the fields, the amount of food available for these birds exploded and with that so too did their populations. What Europeans witnessed and considered normal were in fact a consequence of removing humans from what had been a human-made landscape. And once you do that, other animals take the opportunity to flourish.

This book has shifted how I understand the pre-European Americas – if you are from the Americas, you should read this, not only because it is a fascinating read, but also because it will serve as a useful reminder of a cultural heritage you still have responsibilities for. Just as we Australians can never be reconciled with the land until we help to heal the wound we have made by our terrible and tragic history, so too the Americas have a debt that needs to be repayed.
Profile Image for Ken-ichi.
597 reviews555 followers
August 13, 2011
In brief: I felt this was an adequate, often fascinating summary of human habitation of the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans as understood by present-day historians and scientists. I was happy to see that Mann highlighted controversial areas without simply adopting one side of any given controversy, and in general it seemed like a balanced, well-researched book. That said, there were numerous peccadillos.

Mann starts with the basic assertion that the West's primary mistake in our conception of American Indians is that we have generally seen them as unchanging features in a primeval wilderness. This, he argues, is dehumanizing, regardless of whether you prefer to prefix "savage" with "noble," because a people incapable of change seems incapable of will, of thought, of ingenuity.

He attempts to dismantle this notion by presenting research supporting 3 broad ideas:

1) pre-Columbian population estimates are now assumed to be much higher than previously thought (i.e. between the time of first contact and the colony at Plymouth, humanity in the Americans witnessed a massive die-off)

2) humans were present in North America for tens of thousand of years, and the complexity of their societies were comparable with with Eurasian counterparts

3) Indians could and did exert influence over the natural world

On the whole, I think Mann made convincing arguments for the broad stokes. However, there were a number of things that set me off, most of them centering around my suspicion that Mann was trying harder to convince than reveal. Maybe this stems from his journalistic rather than academic background, but I constantly felt cajoled when what I wanted to feel was "of course!"

First of all there was the general lack of methods. Reconstructing history is a tricky business fraught with error, so when you're trying to communicate a challenging and controversial notion like the number of American Indians who died as a result of European diseases, I think you need to go into excruciating detail about how population numbers are derived. To his credit, Mann touches on it, but he treats the issue of error as a sort of footnote, noting one scientist who thinks the degree of error makes the numbers meaningless. Throughout the book I found myself asking, "But how do we know that?" and was generally disappointed by the number and quality of the citations (sources often include interviews, personal communication, and secondary sources that themselves lack citation).

To provide another example, on p. 234 he describes how Olmecs deformed the pliant skulls of their infants to make them look a certain way... only to admit archaeologists only assume they did this based on their artwork. No ellipsis can adequately contain my stupefaction at the absurdity of that claim. Have you seen Mesoamerican artwork? Have you seen any human artwork prior to Enlightenment Europe? Not exactly the height of realism. Perusing his source, it seems that the figurines looked deformed, and intentional deformation was apparently documented elsewhere in Mesoamerica, but the citation trail goes Spanish there, so I'm lost. If there were first-hand accounts of similar practices, you need to describe them. In the text. Because shaping baby skulls is WEIRD by our standards.

There were other portions that just seemed irrational and/or unscientific. His attempt to equate human sacrifice among the Mexica (aka Aztecs) and 17th century executions in Britain was a bit ridiculous, as fellow Goodreads user Stefan pointed out (p. 134). On p. 172 he actually describes error ranges for carbon dating as "typographical clutter" [muffled howl of rage]. On p. 291 he writes, "Indians [...] began systematically replanting large belts of woodland, transforming them into orchards for fruit and mast." He cites Krummer (an Atlantic Monthly article about chestnut restoration) and himself, neither of which mention Indian planting. You get the picture.

Finally, I found his constant comparisons to Europe and the general sense of hand-wringing and guilt a bit trying, and that's coming from a self-avowed Western liberal hand-wringer. Two back-to-back quotes sum this up nicely:

"The complexity of a society's technology has little to do with its level of social complexity–something that we, in our era of rapidly changing seemingly overwhelming technology, have trouble grasping." (p. 250)

"But where Europe had the profoundly different civilizations of China and Islam to steal from, Mesoamerica was alone in the world." (p. 251)

The sagacity of the former idea and the absurd implication that cultural and technological interchange in Eurasia was both one-way and morally wrong perfectly describe 2/3 of the Ueda-Mann Venn diagram.

But like I said, on the whole pretty good. I found the penultimate bit about defining our relationship to nature and the final section about the role American Indian concepts of freedom and individuality may have influenced the founding of the United States super intriguing, worth books of their own. Maybe that's where he's going with 1493.


prelapsarian (adj): before the Fall of Man. Talkin' Bilbical here. (p. 14)
telluric (adj): terrestrial, pertaining to soil. (p. 80)
statrapies (n): in this context, leaders (or states?) that act primarily in response to larger political entities. (p. 138)
fissiparous (adj): tending to fall apart / separate. (p. 373)
April 14, 2019
I'm astonished at how many people mention in their reviews that they are surprised at how rich and varied and impressive the cultures of the Americas were until a certain point. Many of them actually live on the said continents. How do you even live on a continent and know little about its history? What, did anyone think the Aztec were a bunch of barbarians? Did anyone think Columbus arrived to find an unpopulated part of the world? Maybe because said history gets understated treatment (if not outright dismissal) in history education? I think this is a prime example of history getting bent (in the best tradition illustrated in 1984) to reach certain ends.

This book is not so much innovative (quite a lot of all this had been published way before in professional research literature, 'traduit' to lots of languages). What it does is make this particular corner of history accessible to laymen.

Some points controversial, of course, as is usual with research in shady regions of history. Still, some are actually plenty good.

Full review to follow.
Profile Image for Ian.
722 reviews65 followers
May 31, 2015
This book has already been widely reviewed. Many other reviewers have outlined the basic 3 premises that the book advances. The book is extremely well-researched. The author has spoken with numerous experts and covered an enormous amount of territory, and on the whole he presents fairly convincing arguments. Most people do I think accept that the Indian population of the Americas experienced a catastrophic crash after 1492, due primarily to the introduction of Old World diseases, but Mann presents this simple fact from another angle. He points out that the earliest European explorers described a heavily populated continent, with numerous towns and even cities. A century or so later their successors described an empty wilderness. Even the huge forests, vast herds of bison and the unimaginably large flocks of passenger pigeons, all of which we tend to associate with early post-colonial North America, were, Mann argues, developments that took place only after the Indian population was drastically reduced post 1492. The author also seeks to change our view of Indian civilisations, arguing persuasively that many Indian societies developed highly complex and effective agricultures as well as independently developing writing, and that in both cases they may have been amongst the earliest in the World to do so.

Unfortunately at times the author falls into the trap of overstating his case. He praises Mesoamerican philosophy, and compares it to that of Ancient Greece and China. In support of his argument he provides some rather unimpressive evidence from the Mexica (aka the Aztecs), consisting largely of creation myths and some simplistic questions such as "In the Beyond, are we still dead or do we live?" Perhaps realising the thinness of his evidence, the author asserts that "Cut short by Cortes, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy." This is speculative. As the author himself sets out, dozens if not scores of Indian civilisations had risen and fallen over millennia, and there is no reason to suppose that the fate of the Mexica or the Inca would have been any different, had the Europeans not arrived. Moreover the author finishes the book with a last chapter in which he seems to argue that worldwide ideas of political liberty derive mainly from the Haudenosaunee (The League of the Iroquois). I am not seeking to denigrate the Haudenosaunee, which was an impressive achievement, and I realise the author would be seeking to finish with a flourish, but I find this claim to be a wild exaggeration, totally ignoring the extent to which Ancient Greek ideas of democracy, liberty and equality before the law influenced the 18th Century Enlightenment, and the extent to which the political philosophy of the Enlightenment was inextricably linked with the Scientific Revolution and the challenges it posed to tradition and faith. Regrettably the book's very last paragraph contains two statements that I found to be simply absurd, and for me this rather soured the rest of the arguments the author advanced.
Profile Image for Jason.
51 reviews15 followers
December 4, 2013
Very well written, a good mixture of factual evidence and narrative. The main take home point here should be known to everyone, especially Americans. There is a reason why there was a period of 128 years between Colombus' landing and a permanent European settlement in North America. Namely, there were millions of Native Americans there who thought Europeans were dirty, amusing creatures who had interesting objects but were not fit for being neighbors. Attempted European settlers were continuously driven out. When one tribe finally took pity on the English settlement of Plymouth, it was only because a smallpox epidemic had killed vast numbers of the them off, and they were concerned about being run over by their enemies, who had not yet suffered this fate. It is likely that were it not for the outbreaks of smallpox, preceding many of the first European scouts moving westward, that America would have never been a country.

Oh yeah, and concerning South America, there is evidence that much, possibly 70-80%, of the Amazon forest is man-made.

This is definitely a well researched & eye opening book that will challenge the idea that Native Americans were a sparse people who had no effect on their environment and let things be on their own. The only reason people think that most Native Americans were purely nomadic hunters was because the smallpox had killed off most of the 'urbanized' settlements that required agriculture.
Profile Image for Tim Null.
100 reviews63 followers
October 28, 2022
I learned so much from this book. 1) It was a joy to learn about the pre-Columbian American societies. 2) It was embarrassing to learn that I shouldn't have gifted this book to my Uncle before I had read it myself.
Profile Image for Felicia.
Author 45 books128k followers
December 25, 2011
Fascinating exploration of what we know of the "New World" before Columbus arrived. I knew pretty much nothing about the Incas, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and all the other societies that actually were possibly BIGGER than Europe in 1492, and dwarfed it in centuries before. It's also an interesting survey of these societies and their environments, of how the Indians and the "pristine" environments are a bit of a myth. The scope of the book covers so many different culture, puts everything into a context I never imagined before.

The author obviously loves what he does, and relishes research and it definitely makes potentially dry material come to life. Opened my eyes to a subject I knew nothing about, so I highly recommend!!!!
Profile Image for Philip Allan.
Author 12 books362 followers
August 18, 2020
As a white man educated in the 1970s and 80s, I am aware of the limitations of the western-view of world history I was taught. As a result, I am always on the lookout for books that might offer me a different perspective, and was delighted when several Goodreads friends recommended 1491 to me. As a survey of pre-Columbian America, it does not disappoint. Mann combines first hand reportage with a survey of the current evidence to reveal a Lost World. Some aspects of the narrative were familiar – the travails of the Mayan civilisations, for example, but others were not. The density of the indigenous population of North America before the arrival of European diseases, for example, came as a surprise to this reader, as did the extraordinary idea that the large forests of the Amazon and Eastern United States might be the result of centuries of landscape management by their residents. All in all, this is a fascinating book that is unafraid to debunk most of our perceived views about the New World.

Charles Mann’s work is not without faults, however. His unquestioning approval of Native American culture leads him to overlook some of the more brutal practices of aggressive cultures such as the Inca and Aztecs – human sacrifice being the most obvious example. He also displays evidence in such an even-handed way (on the one hand, on the other hand) that at times I found myself longing to hear what he actually thought. Mann also uses a device of setting up a particular view point over a number of pages, only to tear it down with new evidence once the reader has absorbed his initial argument. This approach is effective the first time it is used, but becomes irritating as the book progresses and it is repeated again and again. That said, 1491 is a very valuable contribution to a little understood part of human history.
568 reviews17 followers
February 3, 2008
Author Charles Mann's purpose is to debunk three commonly held ideas about the Americas before Columbus: that the continents were sparsely populated, that the social and technical development was limited and that the locals left the environment untouched.

In discussing scholarly debates on these subjects, he convincingly argues that the population, before the decimation of disease, was quite high. The debate is just how many people there were rather than whether the continents were pristine unoccupied lands waiting for the taking. The major factor here is the spread of Old World disease.

On the question of social and cultural development, he argues that Peru and Mesoamerica should be counted among the birthplaces of human culture. While they didn't develop in the same way as Asian or European societies, they represent great achievements that best took advantage of their situation.

His final point is that the locals were extensive modifiers of the environment. In fact he goes so far as to say that the Amazon as we know it is the result of thousands of years of human engineering.

All of these arguments have their foes and Mann gives them room in the book as well. It's a fair, easy to read book that will likely educate and entertain all but specialists.
Profile Image for Lois .
1,757 reviews466 followers
July 2, 2018
Sigh, Holmberg didn't 'make a mistake' he used scientific racism. His scientific determinations about Native Americans aren't mistakes. Racism is a form of control and therefore ALWAYS intentional.
If an author is unprepared to deal with white folks behaving badly because of racism, he should've picked another continent on which to set this. As it stands this stance is disrespectful to the very people who's history he's supposed to be providing. Racism is never a mistake or oversight.
The author's inability to leave Europeans out of a book that doesn't include them is annoying. His inability to hold the perpetrators of this genocide accountable is dangerous. Pulling histories for marginalized peoples out of white folks records is a standard method of study and many of the biographies I've read employ this technique. In the beginning generally the author explains where the info/facts/history comes from, the records of the farm or plantation etc, without making those whites the center of the story. No attempt is made to give the subjects that same dignity in this narrative.
Yet for all it's flaws it is a groundbreaking book that ties all of this research together in one place. Just do not give any weight to the author's conclusions. One of the author's main goals here is to expose the mistaken history while protecting white supremacy. It's an intricate dance that ultimately fails.
If this interests you aptn.ca (aboriginal peoples television network) made an 8 part series with this same name. It's considerably better as it includes much more info than exists in this book or I'm told 1493. Also it's created by Native Americans/ First Nations so no need to protect white supremacy. This show is also available on Vimeo. I rarely suggest this but in this case, skip the book watch the show. The history is more accurate and Europeans are non-existent, as they should be in 1491 Americas.
Profile Image for Karl Jorgenson.
533 reviews26 followers
June 10, 2021
This book is a must-read for people interested in the rise of civilization. The author's thesis, well-supported by research, is that 'Indians' in the Americas developed complex civilizations in parallel to and as or more sophisticated than those in China, India, Africa, and Europe. The accident of Small Pox wiped them out, and Europeans, uninterested in achievements outside their sphere, made little note. These civilizations altered the natural environment, farmed, warred, and generally dominated their worlds until a microscopic bug did them in. The book is also filled (as readable historical narratives should be) with anecdotal and amusing factoids, such as the eating habits of the Passenger Pigeon. Fascinating and amazingly well-researched.
Profile Image for Bruce.
61 reviews15 followers
January 12, 2009
Let me start by noting that Mann is a journalist, rather than a historian or cultural anthropologist. This results in a work that is extremely accessible to the non specialist reader and lacking in jargon.

So much of our notions of what North America was like before Europeans arrived are the result of our own impact on the continent. The notion of an empty continent populated by either "noble savages" or aborigines comes from the fact that the population was decimated by western diseases within a 100 years of our arrival.

Mann shows that Native American cultures were highly civilized and complex, with enormous centers of population and highly organized agricultural and political societies. He shows that when Europeans came to North America, they were not seeing a "state of nature" but rather a continent that had already been significantly changed by the agricultural practices of its inhabitants.

We tend to think of small villages of teepees or cave dwellings. But Mann shows that the populations of the America were equivalent to those of Europe in 1500, and that there were large, organized communiteis throughout the continent. Some of the largest of these, such as the cities of the mound people of the plains, or Tenochtitlan in South America, were enormous in scale, and highly civilized.

There was so much here before we arrived, and its important to remember this.
Profile Image for Ash.
123 reviews134 followers
July 29, 2020
It’s been a while since I’ve read a work of nonfiction, and I don’t think I’ve ever read one for pleasure and not as a school requirement. I chose this as my first because I’ve always wanted to learn more about American Indian history. I knew before picking up 1492 that I received a woefully inadequate education on the subject in school and I’m eager to make up for that.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of 1492, so this review will focus only on how readable it was and how much I enjoyed it. Charles C. Mann’s writing style is very journalistic; unsurprising, given his career as, well, a journalist. As someone who regularly binges longreads from my favorite online publications, this style worked for me. It’s not a book you stay up all night reading in a marathon binge session; rather, it’s a book you digest slowly and thoroughly to squeeze out every last drop of information.

It’s evident from the beginning that Mann has opinions. He focuses on the theories that he believes are closest to the truth. Some have more hard evidence to support them than others; Mann is honest when he presents a theory that’s based more on speculation, and he outlines some of the critics’ main arguments. However, this clearly wasn’t meant to be an unbiased presentation of data; the purpose, rather, is to convince readers that pre-Columbian American Indian societies were more complex than history books have usually given them credit for. I knew that going into the book and didn’t have a problem with how it was carried out.

I found the majority of the information in this book interesting, but there were sections here and there that didn’t captivate me. There were also several instances where I thought Mann could have explained a concept more straightforwardly and in fewer words than he did. I rate 1492 three stars because at times it was too dense for me, but I would still highly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about American Indian history.
Profile Image for Tristram Shandy.
698 reviews201 followers
January 29, 2021
Whenever I read a book like Charles C. Mann’s 1491. New Revelations of the America Before Columbus, I find myself torn between the idea that it would be useful to make some kind of excerpt in order to keep track of the general ideas and remarkable details, and the urge to read on because it is so damn interesting. As a rule, being a man of a generous disposition when it comes to granting my own wishes, I give in to the latter temptation, which now prevents me from going into too much detail.

All I can say is that Mann, a journalist, does a very good job of creating awareness of the fact that long-held theories as to the degree to which the Americas were inhabited and shaped by Indian populations ought to be reconsidered. He succeeds in this enterprise by using two strategies: Firstly, and this is probably where his professional training comes in, he grips his readers’ interest by starting from personal experience and encounters, by presenting some observations and then focussing on archaeologists’ work that is apt to throw some light on them. This way, Mann can illustrate very clearly how researchers actually work, what evidence they use as starting points for their respective theories and how they arrive at their conclusions. Simultaneously, however, one may argue that on the whole, the book is not very systematic, but I prefer graphic power of presentation to a systematic, yet abstract approach any time. Mann’s second strength is that he gives ample space to both sides of an argument whenever he presents scientific controversies even though he may side with one of the parties. This can be seen, for example, when he deals with the question of how many people may have lived in the Americas prior to the advent of Columbus, where he presents the arguments of both low-counters and high-counters in a fair way. Mann also sometimes makes it clear how scientific findings and the kind of historiography based upon them can influence, or be influenced by, political motives or ideological beliefs. There are, for instance, researchers who are loath to accept evidence that the Amazon rainforest may have been more densely settled than it is now and that Indians may have shaped what we like to consider as pristine wilderness to a more extensive degree than is widely assumed – on the grounds that this may be grist to the mills of those who are exploiting today’s rainforests relentlessly. Mann, however, claims that the milpa and other procedures in Indian geoshaping are unique examples of using nature’s resources effectively without destroying it in the long run.

The author also provides ample footnotes and an impressive bibliography but as those footnotes do not appear in the text, it is rather tiresome to keep track of them. This may be a decision, however, in favour of reader friendliness.

Altogether, Mann’s approach – his mixture of narration, reporting and the discussion of scientific controversies – allows his readers to get a good idea of what pre-Columbian America must have or could have looked like, to evaluate certain theories on their own and to learn a lot about questions like the impact of diseases carried into the Americas by the European explorers, the consequences of ecological release (rodents, peaches etc.), or Indian achievements in the cultivation of maize and other crops that are now staples in Eurasia and Africa. His enthusiasm for the undeniable wealth of Indian cultures at times carries the author away, however, as when he makes rather exaggerated claims with regard to the depth of Mexica philosophy or, disturbingly so, when he seriously expounds the theory that the egalitarian spirit of Northern American colonists may have been a result of the Haudenosaunees’ love for individual freedom. In the light of European traditions of philosophy and the achievements of the Enlightenment, this was such a bizarrely eccentric hypothesis that I could not help congratulating the author for not having introduced it earlier in the book because it might have easily damaged his credibility. Regardless of this latter flaw, I am looking forward to picking up Mann’s second book on the topic, 1493, in the near future.
Profile Image for Adam.
168 reviews38 followers
October 23, 2018
Review of the audiobook narrated by Darrell Dennis.

I find pre-Columbian history of the Americas fascinating so this book was right up my alley. It did jump around a little more than I liked, but overall this is a great presentation of all of the contemporary findings and generally accepted conclusions (as of 2005) on both the state of culture in the Americas before 1492 and the affect that European settlement/conquering had on said culture beginning in 1492.

The first part tells the story of what the Americas were like immediately before Columbus' journey. Told mostly through the first person accounts of the Europeans who witnessed with their own eyes, Mann uses those observations to paint a snapshot of the lives and cultures of Native Americans at that fateful time. Most notable is the contrasting of chronicles of the very first who explored (seeing a continent teeming with people) with those who came later (seeing a mostly empty and undisturbed environment) thanks to the diseases the Europeans brought to the Americas which swept ahead of them.

The second and third parts are interesting as well, exploring archaeological research, various dating technologies, agricultural advancements (many foods which are now associated with countries, such as tomatoes and Italy, were originally cultured by Native Americans) and the history of a number of different cultures, including the Clovis, Olmec and Maya. Overall this is a great book for anyone interested in American Indian or pre-Columbian history.

History doesn't have the same narration demands as the fiction that I spend most of my time listening to as there typically aren't an array of different characters that need to be given distinct voices. The difficulty in narrating this book is with the pronunciations of all of the different places and people(s), which Darrell Dennis does flawlessly. In looking him up after finishing the book I see that he is a Native American (First Nations) actor. Retrospectively, this does give his narration more credibility than I had been attributing it as he does sound like your average reader.

Final verdict: 4.5 star story, 4.5 star narration, 4.5 stars overall
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,176 followers
October 31, 2018
I should begin by saying that this book is not what I expected, which necessarily entails some disappointment. I was hoping for a more in-depth look at the major pre-Columbian societies and cultures. What this book instead offers is a sort of overview of trends in research in this area, highlighting how these trends contradict the popular image of the Americas before European colonization. This is, of course, also a valuable and worthwhile topic—and, considering the book’s popularity, many have found it to be so—but I nevertheless must admit that, after putting down the book, I still have only a hazy notion of the actual cultures in question.

Mann sets himself to undermine the popular notion of scattered groups of savages in a pristine, ahistorical paradise, living lightly off the land in a perfect harmony with nature. He sets out to show that, first, there were orders of magnitude more people in the Americas than was originally suspected; second, that humans arrived in the Americas far earlier than previously thought; and third, that pre-Colombian societies radically altered their environment. The picture that emerges is of a continent teeming with complex civilizations, each one manipulating the world around them in unique ways.

Due to the limited and often indirect evidence available to researchers, and the comparatively nascent state of the field, Mann is unable to give a textbook-like overview of pre-Colombian societies. Our knowledge is simply too fragmentary; there are too many scholarly disagreements. He instead chooses to focus on individual scholars and their lines of research, showing how these converge to suggest the aforementioned new conclusions. The advantage to this method is that his narrative is enlivened with the stories of real research; and it also allows Mann to give a more realistic impression of the state of our knowledge. But the disadvantage is that this book often reads like an extended Nat Geo article—the report of a journalist tagging along on research expeditions—rather than the bird’s-eye view I was hoping for.

Another major drawback is that, by focusing on pioneering research, Mann is unable to give answers that are wholly satisfying, since the field itself has not yet reached a stable consensus. The research he relies on for his section on pre-Colombian population, for example, uses a combination of indirect evidence and simple speculation. Granted, I was convinced even before opening this book that European diseases caused significant depopulation after first contact. But whether the fatality rate was as high as 90%, as he suggests, is difficult to accept without more decisive evidence. Personally I find it hard to believe that one-fifth of the global population (to use his figure) could die off without leaving a far less ambiguous archeological trace.

That the research is in this state is not, of course, Mann’s fault; yet he is not merely reporting the results of different experts in the field, but choosing those whose research most strongly supports this book’s thesis. This put me naturally on guard, since I know from my brief time studying archaeology how varied scholarly opinion can be in a field where evidence is necessarily scanty, incomplete, and suggestive. This being said, I do want to emphasize that I was convinced of Mann’s major points; it was only the details that put me in a dubious state of mind.

Mann’s habit of focusing on the research that most forcefully bolsters his conclusions is part of a more general tendency to overstate his case. For example, I find it difficult to accept Mann’s assertion that the first generation of European colonists did not have a decisive military advantage over their American counterparts (which supports the thesis that disease was the decisive factor in the conquest). Steel blades, guns, and mounted cavalry were all landmarks in military technology in Eurasia, so I do not see why they would not lend an advantage in this context. I also could not swallow Mann’s argument that American Indian cultures played such a decisive role in the emergence of Western liberalism and individualism. Now, I have little doubt that the example of egalitarian, non-coercive societies did play a role in this development; but Mann makes it seem as if Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire were reliant on this example.

But I should stop nitpicking a book which is thoughtful, well-written, well-researched, and which dispels many obsolete myths. And, really, it is my fault for choosing a book on new revelations, when I really wanted to learn more about the religion, art, architecture, and science of these vanished civilizations.

(I should note one error I caught. Mann says that the Spanish missionary Gaspar de Carvajal was born “in the Spanish town of Extremadura.” But Extremadura is region, or an autonomous community, not a town; Carvajal was born in Trujillo, which is indeed in Extremadura.)
Profile Image for Joe.
326 reviews76 followers
December 13, 2020
As the author suggests in his preface many of us have been taught that prior to Christopher Columbus showing up, North and South America were pristine lands, sparsely populated by primitive Indians with unsophisticated cultures, who lived at the mercy of Mother Nature. Combining archaeology, history, science and even some psychology/sociology – and as the subtitle suggests – The author paints a very different picture of the “New World” before it was “discovered”. And for the most part 1491 is a fascinating read, dispelling one Pre-Columbian myth after another with “new” scientific evidence – although much of it has been around for awhile but ignored – as well as raising some fascinating if troubling questions. For instance – if the New World was a more sophisticated, complex, densely populated place than we realized – what the hell happened?

To get the answer to that question as well as a whole lot more information - for instance the history of maize/corn - pick up this book. As alluded to above one of the fascinating features of this book is that much of the evidence utilized to retool our history of the Pre-Columbian world has been around and has either been ignored or considered quirks outside the boundaries of contemporary theory. My only fault with this book is that I got lost several times in some of the cultural details as well as the names of the ancient leaders/personages – and there is a lot of both in this book.

Still, 1491 is a fascinating and engaging book and if you’re looking for something a “little different” – you won’t go wrong here.
Profile Image for Aili.
28 reviews3 followers
August 28, 2007
So the major thing to note here is that this is a history of the inhabitants of pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere... written by a feature journalist. It has a lot of straight history, but also a lot of information gleaned from non-standard or new techniques, such as archaeology, forensic science, and linguistics. Oh, and actually talking to folks who identify as indigenous -- who are, lots of them, still around.

A fair amount of the material was familiar to me from taking Colonial Latin America (taught by the awesome Prof. Cope) in college and from reading Guns, Germs, and Steel [and it's clear that the author totally hearts Jared Diamond]. But even with that background, there was enough new/interesting stuff to keep me entertained.

The downside is also the upside: as a journalist, the author is prone to kind of florid prose, which I found distracting but others (I hear) find exciting.

He also jumps around a lot -- it was unclear from the chapter titles what themes would be covered, or where, or who. The thread within a given chapter can jump from maps of the Amazon Basin to a Short History of the Fall of the Inkan [sic] Empire to How to Make Tortillas in Oaxaca, Mexico. The lack of overall structure meant that the author has to keep explicitly stating his extremely general goal: "I just wanna write about these folks because the current history paradigm totally fails to." Because otherwise you might forget it or wonder why he's spending 10 pages discussing a somewhat arbitrarily-chosen Mayan civil war in extreme detail.

His intention is laudable, but having such a general goal means that there's no clear build-up to a conclusion. So it's very easy to flip or page through this book, but it's kind of boring to read it straight through.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,067 reviews1,085 followers
February 28, 2021
This was a disappointment. Mann is a smooth writer and this book was a real bestseller. But to my taste Mann has a too journalistic flavor: he wants to prove something and apparently he selected only the facts and theories that fit his theses.

Admittedly, right from the start he puts his cards on the table and clearly states what these theses are, namely that America before Columbus was no empty wilderness, but densely populated by peoples that were much older than thought till now and that had a much greater impact on their surroundings. I agree that this sounds plausible, since the classic Western history vision was no doubt biased by a disdainful look on the original (Amerindian) population.

But Mann offers no convincing evidence of the contrary and bases his theses a little too much on theories that still are very controversial (for example that English ships arrived in Newfoundland round 1480, or that the Indian tribes in New England in early 17th century were technologically superior to the English settlers).

Mann may be right that there's a lot we don't know yet about Pre-columbian America and that our classic historic vision will be adjusted significantly by new discoveries. But for now I'm not convinced by his proposals. (rating 1.5 stars)
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,891 reviews218 followers
May 17, 2023
This book explores what the Americas were like in pre-Columbian times. The author was aware that much of what was presented in the history books was out of date, but he could not find an updated version, so he decided to write this book. It was published in 2005. The commonly held idea was that Indians had sparsely settled the North and South America and mostly lived nomadic lives of hunting and gathering. The former thinking asserted that the land was pristine and remained so due to the Indians’ lack of technological advancement. Mann provides evidence and analysis that disputes this viewpoint.

Rather than attempting a full chronology of the history of the Americas, which would indeed be an enormous task, he splits his analysis into three sections. Part one takes a look at demographics, part two at origins, and part three at ecology. It contains voluminous data and disagreements among experts. It examines the latest (at the time) scientific research, including genetics, linguistics, anthropology, archeology, and sociology. It takes a look at the diseases that killed off a large number of people after the arrival of Europeans, and the reasons for such a death toll. It presents the indigenous people as comparable in achievements to the Europeans of the Old World.

“Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astronomy, and mathematics, including the zero.”

It counters the idea that Indians split off from a single migration of ancestors across the Bering Strait into North Americas and spreading throughout Central and South America. (Thanks to the emergence of DNA analysis, this view has since been commonly accepted.) Current research indicates there were many more Indians in the Western Hemisphere than previously believed, and they arrived much earlier. They also transformed their environment to suit their needs. The author examines the complex societies of the indigenous peoples, such as the massive Inkan, Mexica/Aztec, and Mayan civilizations, and the large cities they built in what is today Central and South America. He goes further back into the history of the Olmecs, Toltecs, and Norte Chico. He also closely looks at the Cahokia (and a few other tribes) in North America.

It is an ambitious undertaking that can occasionally feel like it is employing a scattershot approach, but I found the content fascinating. It is written in a journalistic style and also serves as a quasi-memoir of the author’s travels to these regions. It raises controversies and invites further studies. It examines many conflicting hypotheses and scientific opinions. Recommended to fans of pre-Columbian history, and anyone interested in the origins, culture, and civilizations of indigenous (North, South, and Central) Americans.
Profile Image for Inderjit Sanghera.
450 reviews91 followers
November 8, 2020
Years of disinformation and Western hubris have buried the human history of the Americans beneath an avalanche of ignorance and inaccuracies. As such, a multitude of false myths have been perpetuated about the Native Indian societies in North and South America so that they have transformed into self-evidence truths; that they were uncivilized, that they didn’t have culture, that they didn’t shape or cultivate the lands. In many ways this is just a smokescreen to assuage feelings of European guilt around the mass land theft and genocide committed, however Mann brilliantly explores and upends these myths, turning them on their heads by demonstrating that the cultures which existed in the Americas had a deep knowledge of their environment, allowing the shape and define it and had complex cultures and polities, sometimes in advance of their counterparts in the Old World, whereby you could, wish some justification, refer to the Americas as the New World and the Old World as New.

Mann explores how Native Americans used fire to control the environment, how the principles of liberty, self-reliance and individuality are deeply rooted in Native American cultures, a culture which was damaged irreparably by the post-Colombian European exploration, both in the physical sense where millions of Native Americans were murdered or enslaved and tens of millions wiped out by disease and influenza. Far from being a pristine wilderness as imagined, pre-Columbine America was a land where people had a deep and intimate knowledge of the land, flora and fauna, were political rivalries were as complex as anything in the Old World, where culture and art flourished from the verdant plains to the arid deserts.

South America, on the other hand, was home to empires to rival the Roman or Ottoman, from the Inca to the Maya, empires flourished and floundered, developing advanced knowledge of engineering and mathematics and, like the Native Americans, shaping the wider environment to meet their needs (there is an interesting hypothesis about the Amazon rainforest is product of human cultivation.) They were able to do this without the knowledge and information sharing which the old world, from China to Egypt to Britain, had the advantage of, or the use of domesticated animals or the wheel. Ultimately the last vestiges of these empires collapsed beneath the weight of disease and mass genocide, their cultures irrevocably lost, their histories vanished, stripped of their humanity in an attempt by European powers to assuage themselves from any guilt or responsbility.

Mann forcefully and brilliantly argues for both the impact native North and South American societies had on the world, from maize to tomatoes and potatoes and their ideas about liberty and democracy which seeped into nascent American politics and later the world, whilst allowing the reader to discover the depth, complexity, uniqueness and brilliance of a world which was long lost.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,005 reviews1,116 followers
August 24, 2011
Tom Miley told me to read his copy of this book while I was visiting him and his family in San Francisco. It was an excellent suggestion. Rarely have I read a book filled with so much information contrary to what I thought I knew.

1491 basically summarizes recent researches suggesting that the Americas were populated earlier than previously believed, more densely populated than commonly estimated and more widely civilized.

One of the more interesting stories in this book is about the civilization(s) along the Amazon. Like Hadingham's Lines of the Mountain Gods, Mann's account details a breakthrough which occurred as a result of a researcher thinking to simply ask current inhabitants about signs of civilization which might accord with the generally discredited earliest accounts of Europeans following the course of the river. The accounts had mentioned town after town, but when later explorers visited no signs remained. The natives, however, knew of artificial riparian hills, hills of potsherds, enough to indicate both a large and relatively sophisticated population whose other artifacts, made of woods and other organic substances, had long since disintegrated. This further correlated with the peculiar distribution patterns of trees bearing edible fruit, patterns suggestive of an arboreal milpa culture. The rainforest, much of it, might be more a tree garden gone to seed than a primeval jungle.

The book contains many stories such as this, stories which are joined by a grand, speculative narrative about the broad scope of human history and pre-history in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,536 followers
December 23, 2010
This is an excellent book that describes the civilizations in North, Central, and South America before (and shortly after) the arrival of Columbus. Many facets of these civilizations are quite impressive. For example, the agricultural method of inter-planting different species of crops in a plot of land was a wonderful approach for keeping farms fertile over long periods of time, even millennia. This farming method was much better--and more efficient--than the European method of rotating crops. Some of the "forests" of the Amazon are actually the remnants of ancient orchards, where people could just "live off of the land" by picking fruits off of trees. Indians in North America would burn off the underbrush in forests every year, creating forests that were more akin to parks than wilderness.

The most impressive part of the book was the last chapter, a recounting of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Indians. They lived as a single social class. They could not fathom the European class system. They didn't understand why servants and slaves didn't simply "walk away" to freedom. Their approach to freedom and independence had a great influence on founding fathers of the United States, and to this day, around the world.
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