1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus

by Charles C. Mann

Hardcover, 2005




New York : Knopf, 2005.


An analysis of America prior to 1492 describes how the research of archaeologists and anthropologists has transformed myths about the Americas, revealing that the cultures were far older and more advanced than previously known.

Media reviews

Mann has written an impressive and highly readable book. Even though one can disagree with some of his inferences from the data, he does give both sides of the most important arguments. 1491 is a fitting tribute to those Indians, present and past, whose cause he is championing.
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Mann has chronicled an important shift in our vision of world development, one our young children could end up studying in their textbooks when they reach junior high.
Mann does not present his thesis as an argument for unrestrained development. It is an argument, though, for human management of natural lands and against what he calls the "ecological nihilism" of insisting that forests be wholly untouched.
Mann's style is journalistic, employing the vivid (and sometimes mixed) metaphors of popular science writing: "Peru is the cow-catcher on the train of continental drift. . . . its coastline hits the ocean floor and crumples up like a carpet shoved into a chairleg." Similarly, the book is not a comprehensive history, but a series of reporter's tales: He describes personal encounters with scientists in their labs, archaeologists at their digs, historians in their studies and Indian activists in their frustrations. Readers vicariously share Mann's exposure to fire ants and the tension as his guide's plane runs low on fuel over Mayan ruins. These episodes introduce readers to the debates between older and newer scholars. Initially fresh, the journalistic approach eventually falters as his disorganized narrative rambles forward and backward through the centuries and across vast continents and back again, producing repetition and contradiction. The resulting blur unwittingly conveys a new sort of the old timelessness that Mann so wisely wishes to defeat.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Garp83
Way back in 2005, I set out to study American History all over again -- from the beginning, chronologically that is. I launched the effort with 'big history' 65 million years ago with the outstanding "The Eternal Frontier" by Tim Flannery, then followed with another winner, "Facing East from Indian Country" by Daniel Richter. The next one was still another superlative title, "American Colonies" by Alan Taylor. I was all set to move on to the French & Indian Wars when I stumbled upon "1491" by Charles Mann.

Everything suddenly came to a screeching halt as I literally inhaled this masterpiece of multi-disciplinary scholarship on the pre-Columbian Americas, and I realized I needed a long pause and lot more study before I abandoned the early period of American history and moved on.

Mann successfully integrates and synthesizes all the latest research and findings from historical sources as well a wide range of archaeological, anthropological, linguistic and -- well, you pick a field and Mann has consulted it -- and successfully wraps his narrative around it. Mann virtually rediscovers the lost world of Mesoamerican, Andean and other pre-Columbian societies, bringing a new and crisper focus to the more familiar "high civilizations" of the Aztecs and the Incas, and -- more critically -- rescuing from the dustbin of pre-history less well-known and perhaps less advanced cultures that were nonetheless more than the equal in many ways to their European counterparts who supplanted them. He challenges the customary assumptions that most of the pre-contact population beyond the golden cities was primitive and made little impact upon their respective environments.

With a narrative gift that is never tedious despite the complexity and detail of the material he discusses, Mann delivers nothing less than a tour-de-force of history told from a perspective long overlooked, a fascinating account of a thriving and successful population much larger than once assumed, decimated primarily by devastating plagues from across the sea they could never have anticipated or countered.

Readers will walk away from this book breathless from what they have encountered and absorbed. I award “1491” five stars because it is unique – like such other masterworks as Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs & Steel” and Nicholas Wade’s “Before the Dawn” – in literally provoking entirely new perspectives in otherwise familiar territory. I award “1491” my very highest recommendation for all students of history, especially those who seek to better understand the Americas prior to European contact.
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LibraryThing member bookcrushblog
An engaging, breathtaking overview of the Americas before Columbus hit shore.

The author -- who uses a compelling, journalistic style -- takes umbrage with the dismissive tone American textbooks have toward Native American history and sets out to reconstruct American history with an eye toward dismantling many myths about Western hemisphere civilizations.

For instance: Who says this was an environment "untouched by man?" What do you mean civilizations can't exist in the Amazon? Can you really believe that the Americas were sparsely populated? Really?

I have to say -- I ate up every bit of the author's argument. My only complaint is that I wish I could read the deleted chapter on southwest Native Americans (which the author refers to in his afterword). Hint to author: post it online! Deleted scenes aren't just for movies anymore ;)
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LibraryThing member lorax
Comparisons of this book to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel are inevitable, and Mann certainly acknowledges Diamond's work. They aren't really that similar other than being something markedly different from the "Europeans with their technological superiority colonize the backward Americas" narrative of previous decades, however. This is an account of the major civilizations of the Americas before European contact. While more detailed and more up-to-date than what most of us were taught in middle school, it does have the same focus -- a great deal of time is devoted to the Big Three (Aztec, Inca, and Maya) and to Mesoamerican cultures in general, the Mound Builders get the obligatory mention, and some regions are omitted entirely for lack of space. In part this is due to available materials -- the settled cultures with written language, especially those who made direct contact with Europeans before being decimated by disease, simply left more detailed records. I was still disappointed by the lack of any discussion of the interior North American West, but that's a minor quibble. Overall the book was fascinating and I found myself saying "wow" or reading interesting bits aloud to my partner very frequently. I give this less than 5 stars only for the incompleteness mentioned above.… (more)
LibraryThing member publiusdb
I'll be the first to admit that my interests in the historical have generally been Eurocentric, especially the Roman Republic and Empire. Recently, though, I found reason to pick up Charles C. Mann's "1491," and I have had a hard time putting it down since.

The children's nursery rhyme reminds us that "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Just this last week we've celebrated Thanksgiving and the mythologized first meal shared by "Pilgrims" and Native Americans in the early years of Captain John Smith's Plymouth Colony in the 1620s. But what came before Europeans in the "New World" of North and South America? What was already here when they arrived? Was there much more than a few human sacrificing Aztecs (in South and Central America) and nomadic tribes in North America?

Quite the contrary, says Mann. Rather, he says, the land was full of people, developed into complex cultures and polities. For example, and he expands on many, the Maya controlled an empire that was larger than any in the old world, both in size and population. The Mexica (pronounced Meh-shi-ka) had a literary culture full of metaphor and simile, and a rhetorical tradition that enabled them to meet Franciscan friars sent to convert them on equal ground. In North America, as far as the shores of New England, the coast was full hundreds of thousands of Native Americans--the nations of the Micmac, Passamoquoddy, Abenaki, Mahican, and the Massachusett, among others.

Indeed, there were so many people in both North and South America that Mann wonders if settlement by European colonists would have been possible but for the effects of disease on the native population. So devastating were diseases such as small pox, influenza, and non-sexually transmitted hepatitis that civilizations such as the Maya may have been destroyed before Europeans even landed on the shores of South America. Similarly, the nations of New England, which had filled the land and had traded with early French and English merchants during the 16th century, almost disappeared over a period as short as two to five years.

Why was disease so devastating? While not the central focus of the book, or even the examination of "what was here before 1492," Mann explains how the relatively limited genetic stock of Native Americans presented insufficient diversity for the native populations to survive the diseases that had been active in Europe and Africa for thousands of years. Native Americans were in no way inferior--they just came from fewer people and thus had less genetic diversity, had never faced diseases as the Europeans (and their pigs) carried and therefore fewer of them survived the introduction of the diseases to the American peoples. The result was that within a few years, entire nations and their cultures all but vanished from the Earth...leaving the appearance of a empty land with only a few roving tribes. Indeed, says Mann, the reason those tribes were roving may be because they had been cut down from populations levels necessary to support a stable and stationary settlement.

Among some of the other interesting tales and studies that Mann shares in his book is the story of Tisquantum, who we know as Squanto. His name, which he may have given himself, meant something along the lines of "wrath of God," and Mann suggests that when he appeared in the Plymouth Colony, his intentions may not have been as benign as have been told to us in elementary school pageants. Born an original New Englander, he was kidnapped by Europeans as a souvenir and taken to Spain. Eventually, he ended up in England in the home of a rich merchant, again as an oddity to show to visitors. Learning English, he eventually convinced the merchant to send him back to America. However, in the time between his kidnapping and return, hepatitis ran rampant through his and the other nations living in what is not modern-day Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, wiping out his people and others. He returned to an empty land and was captured by a rival nation, who later used him and his ability to speak English to liaison with the Plymouth Colony. He, in return, may have tried to use the colonists as leverage to take over the rival nation.

1491 is a fascinating book, and a fascinating piece of history, covering a period of history that we may have spent less time examining than is merited given the size and scope of the civilizations that preceded European colonization of the Americas. Containing cities that dwarfed Rome in its greatest day and Paris and London at the time, the Americas in 1491 were, by Mann's telling, a busy, populated and colorful place, and it deserves a place in our histories and archives alongside those of the other great civilizations of history.

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LibraryThing member sergerca
An absolute eye-opener. Especially from someone like me who reflexively thinks from an American point of view. When I think "Indian" I think Crazy Horse and Tecumseh. It's as if the Aztecs and Inca are not even in the same category as the Sioux and Shawnee.

No doubt, I'll take western civilization as imported from Europe over anything else. But we delude ourselves in thinking that those here before us were not civilized in any meaningful way. I really appreciated the parts of the book detailing the native peoples' deliberate impact on the environment (e.g. changing the course of a river in Missouri). Anything historical information that combats the silly idea that the Indians lived in perfect harmony with the environment and we evil, white Europeans came and mucked it all up is welcome to me.

I learned A LOT, and sadly, found that much of what I was taught in school by teachers I truly cherish is just plain wrong. I hope that today's students have teachers who read this book and teach the facts as we now know them.
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LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
Apart from a rambling literary style, this book is chock full of interesting information about the state of archaeology and the various theories about what the Americas were like in "prehistoric" times (all the years before the Europeans settled in them). Mr. Mann makes a convincing case for the idea that the Americas were full of people - that it was a bustling place - and that the introduction of Old World diseases had an unusually virulent effect on the various populations, rendering the Americas almost empty by the time Europeans began settling the continents in full force. Along the way the author explores such subjects as how much or how little these ancient populations manipulated their environment, how "civilized" these groups were, and how they managed to be here in the first place. Very interesting reading - thanks to my friend, Amy, for the recommendation!… (more)
LibraryThing member lyzadanger
Thoughtful new (or at least little-known in non-academic circles) perspectives fill Mann's book, a nice synthesis of pre-Columbian hypotheses that isn't a bad read at all.

Mann's efforts to avoid emotionally-charged terminology (he even devotes an appendix to explaining himself) sometimes backfire: in his efforts to present lesser-talked-about pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas as valuable and complex in an even-handed way, he often ends up flinging pejorative and subjective descriptions of arriving Europeans. The Spanish are "gawking yokels," the Puritans smelly and ignorant. Even as he denigrates the "noble savage" construct he is paradoxically buttressing its inverse. But it does have a gentler feel to it, and perhaps it's just a bit of harmless overemphasis.

What's more concerning is the striking lack of evidence for the core hypothesis he is shilling here: that there were many, many (many many many) more native Americans, in much more complex societies than we had realized. Well, OK. He has some significant archaeological evidence for the latter. But he even admits that "no definitive data exist" regarding population, and recognizes that even slight margins in estimates could have massive impacts on the actual reality of the past.

Mann is a comfortable, conversational writer, sharp at the everyday kind of expository that makes for good popular non-fiction. The book is narrative, enjoyable.
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LibraryThing member addunn3
The author summarizes research on what the Americas were like before Columbus bumped into it. One of the best reads I have encountered - especially since much of the original material had to have been rather academic. Easy to understand, with what appears to be a pretty fair shake to countering views on the many topics he presents.… (more)
LibraryThing member TGPistole
Not an easy book to get through but it was well worth the effort. What a different perspective it has provided on the land we now call North and South America before the European "discovery."
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
As an American of largely European descent raised in the latter half of the 20th century, I’ve always had a feeling of shame over how those ancestors treated the people they found on the American continents when they arrived. The appalling heights of hubris and greed are staggering. The loss of humanity and knowledge untold. It makes me sad and ashamed. Not guilty, mind you, as I personally did nothing to atone for, but ashamed.

Not that this book is a focus for ‘white guilt’ in any way; it merely shows up what was destroyed by accident or design when Europeans arrived in the Americas. Now when some smug Englishman tries to belittle me by saying that Americans have no history, I’ll merely reply that the illusion of no history lies in the utter genocide perpetrated here. There would have been plenty to learn from and be fascinated by if everyone hadn’t died.

Not that we had a garden of earthly delights over here in the Americas. There was plenty of war, corrupt governments, unjust laws and bad ideas. By today’s standards anyway. But Mann does a pretty good job of portraying things in a non-judgmental way. Neither attacking seemingly bloodthirsty practices nor mythologizing the already misjudged harmonious nature of many Indian groups.

That’s probably the most valuable thing I learned from reading 1491; that Indians were human like any other group of humans. They really didn’t differ much from their European counterparts. They built cities, grew crops, husbanded animals, worshipped gods. They just did many of these things so differently that the newcomers failed to recognized many practices and thus concluded that they didn’t exist. Or didn’t recognize a complete change of situation in a group and decided that’s the way they’d always been. The concept of Holberg’s Mistake isn’t only isolated to that one man misunderstanding what he saw.

Mann’s theories and concepts are indeed cutting edge and some are highly controversial. Even if they are proven to be outright wrong, at least it’s spurring conversation and further study. For hundreds of years the indigenous people were at worst massacred and at best treated like children. This book attempts to see them as fellow humans; doing amazing things sometimes, awful things other times and living as fully and selfishly as all humans do.
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LibraryThing member untraveller
Wish I could have given this book a better rating, but my prejudices against archaeologists just continues to shine through. There are some really good points made throughout the book, things I didn't know, things I thought were fun to know. But then to read about the way Amazonia was thought to be settled, for example, by two of our 'brightest' archaeologists, found disturbing. One point of view makes complete and total sense....until the other viewpoint comes along to dispel it. But, not quite because now the two proponents are tooth and nails into each other's face. And yet, from my point of view, only one can make sense. In the course of my 'career', I've had so many similar encounters with these people and their issue is that they really don't know much other than archaeology. And it does seem to be a bit of a wishy-washy discipline at that....This book exemplifies all that and more. Tis useful....to a point.… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts
This book attempts to reconstruct what the world of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere was like before contact with the Europeans. Often what the first conquerors and colonists saw was not representative of the pre-Columbian reality as the diseases that preceded them decimated the Indians leading to political instability, and often a faction allying with the Europeans and hastening the demise of the culture in it's entirety. Mann focuses on three main points, presenting evidence for and against these hypotheses:

  • the population of the New World was much greater than generally accounted for, possibly more populous than Europe

  • people arrived in the Americas much earlier than the popular Bering land bridge theory would suppose

  • the Indians left an indelible mark on the landscape, building cities, managing ecoystems, and even creating the Amazon jungle

In many ways this book raises more questions than it answers, but dang are they good questions. Ultimately, the full story of the pre-contact Americas may never be known, but the assumptions of what it was like have been tested and failed to hold up.

Favorite Passages:
What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the “New World.” Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.
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LibraryThing member Oreillynsf
What a powerful exploration of the lives and cultures that were lost through conquest and European colonization. History is of course usually written by the victors, so this examination of what was lost should be read by anyone interested in a more balanced view of North and South American history.
LibraryThing member jorgearanda
While Mann's is an interesting and accessible compilation of prehispanic history in the American continent, I found the novelty spin in most of his stories problematic. Perhaps in the United States prehispanic history has been fully neglected until recently, but most of the findings Mann reports (on the extent of the Mexica and Inca civilizations, especially) are very old news, and very unsurprising, elsewhere.… (more)
LibraryThing member rsubber
Mann tells you everything you never knew about civilized people in the Americas before the Europeans arrived and killed most of them (OK, many died in battle, but it was European diseases, mostly). Maybe close to 100 million "native" people died within 100 years or so of the "discovery" by Columbus…..but hold on, this book is not about Wounded Knee-type criticism or ex post facto self-flagellation.

Mann beautifully describes the marvelous sophistication of cultures, cities, agriculture, arts and science that blossomed in North America, Central America, and South America thousands of years ago, in many cases predating achievements and growth and civilization in Europe. Yes, the Incas never used the wheel except for children's toys. And yes, the Mississippian city of Cahokia was a bustling port and a trading center with population equal to Paris in France---and that was 500 years before Columbus sailed. And yes, there were grand cities in the Americas before there was pyramid-building in Egypt. And yes, the Olmec culture in what is now Mexico invented the zero whole centuries before mathematicians in India did the same.

My recollection of learning about the history of the Americas is that the dates and events were tied to discovery and conquest and colonization by Europeans. The implication was that, before the white men with guns, germs and steel arrived, nothing much was going on in whole continents characterized more by "virgin land" and "endless wilderness" than by people who had agriculture, city life, art, trade, commerce, religion, science, kings and philosophers.

For me, the joy of reading this book is learning about the multiplicity of cultures that flourished in the Americas, and learning how they tamed and managed and very greenly conserved their environment…and for me, the sad revelation of this book is understanding that the peoples of the Americas were human beings whose achievements were noble and notable, and yet, lamentably, their legacies are largely lost and the losses are barely mourned.

In 1533 Pizarro and his conquistadors at Cuzco precipitated the decline of the 300-year-old Inca empire in Peru. Fifty years later, the Spanish colonial administrators in Peru ordered the burning of all the Incan "khipu" knotted string records because they were "idolatrous objects." Khipu were the Incas' only form of writing. The smoke from the burning of the books gets in your eyes, forever and ever.
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LibraryThing member kutsuwamushi
Unless you are already a serious student of American history before Columbus, this book will dramatically change how you understand it. Not because it's fringe--it actually seems to be fairly well-regarded among historians--but because the discoveries discussed here have not made it into the national narrative.
LibraryThing member figre
The discovery of what America looked like before Europeans showed up is engrossing and almost everything you learned in school about it is wrong. Of course, anthropologists/archaeologist can’t agree on what it looked like. But, believe me, whatever you learned is wrong.

This book digs deep into the most recent (and, actually, some not so recent) revelations about the New World, in particular, turning upside down most of our preconceived notions about the size of the populations (rivaling other major world centers), the civilizations that existed (rivaling other world centers), and how old those civilizations were (rivaling the “cradles of civilization”.)

Of course, that “digging deep” is probably the books biggest downfall as Mann’s attention to detail and support for the points he brings forward is exhaustive and exhausting. It can get a bit tiring, but who can really fault him for wanting to bring it all forward – it is truly fascinating how it all comes together (and, if nothing else, the extensive notes show the research involved.) And, no where else are you going to get so far-reaching an exploration of what we know now (which will probably be wrong again in the future, but sometimes the joy is in the journey.)
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LibraryThing member DrBrewhaha
Mann compares old ideas about the pre-Columbian Americas with current ideas. Overall, he argues that the Americas were occupied by more, and more advanced, populations than most people believe. Current thinking indicates that Native American populations were harmed more by disease than my advanced weaponry. Additionally, factions within pre-Columbian cultures were often willing to enlist the aid of the new visitors in order to gain greater advantage over their neighbors. Mann also argues that indigenous cultures have been incorrectly romanticized as being "one with nature". Whereas evidence is surfacing indicating that they had huge footprints, for both good and bad, on their environment.

Finally, Mann clearly demonstrates that archaeology and anthropology are very evolutionary pursuits which produce theories that ebb and flow with time.

The book was certainly well supported with numerous references and footnotes. At times these references got in the way of the narrative and made parts of the book slow-going. But, there were also sections that were fast-moving and intriguing as well.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This book can be summed up like this: take everything you ever learned in school or thought you knew about the Americas before Columbus. Throw it out the window. The exact opposite of everything you thought you knew is more likely to be true.

This book is historiography as much as it is history: Mann discusses the archaeological research that has led historians to totally change their minds in the past 50 years. A lot of this relatively new research is quite contentious, and Mann does a good job of showing where the debates are and giving the current state of the question.

Sometimes I found Mann's style to be a bit rambling - he goes off on tangents sometimes, and I lost track of some of the arguments. The last two chapters get a little bit preachy in talking about man's relationship with the environment and the influence Indians have had on the culture and history of the USA.

Most of all, it is just shocking that history textbooks are still full of information that we now know is just downright wrong. The politics of why this is get really convoluted.... But the TL:DR version is that before Europeans arrived, the Americas were heavily populated by sophisticated and advanced peoples who shaped their environment and had large, thriving governments and cultures.
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LibraryThing member EpicTale
I enjoyed "1491" for Mann's deft and articulate summations of and reflections on recent scholarship regarding pre-Columbian life in the Western Hemisphere, a subject which I knew little to nothing about. I enjoyed learning about different Indian civilizations and societies, which in many cases achieved levels of high sophistication (and, often, profound demise) well before the arrival of the Europeans and the devastating impact of the heretofore-unseen germs and viruses with which they unknowingly poisoned the native population. Like us, Mann helps us to appreciate, Indians were political, pragmatic, calculating, and sometimes petty in their actions and motives despite the popular impression that they led an exquisitely zen-like and peaceful co-existence with nature. The book made me realize that I need to pay lots more attention to Indian culture, beyond what little I know so far, if I want to understand the full history of human activities in the Western Hemisphere.… (more)
LibraryThing member Whiskey3pa
A very good book. Written in a style that draws you along, despite the information volume. Does a good job of separating generally accepted theory from more exotic guesses and identifying them as such. The death tolls, both in humanity and culture/society are simply staggering.
LibraryThing member Mendoza
I occasionally do read non-fiction books. Occassionally. But, really, this didn't read that way at all. And, I don't recall learning any of this in my American History class.

What? Indians were actually intelligent people with expansive societies? I guess it makes sense - I mean, how did they survive until we got there anyway?

Anyway, very thought provoking. I read it slowly and had great discussions with my dh about it. It really just brings home how very slanted the information our children are taught is.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
The past 40+ years have seen scientific revolutions in many fields including demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, genetics, image analysis, palynology, molecular biology, soil science, and others. As new evidence has accumulated, long-standing views about the pre-Columbian world have come under increasing pressure. Although there is no consensus, and Mann acknowledges controversies, the general trend among scientists is that 1a) the population levels were probably higher than traditionally believed among scientists (known as "high counters"), 1b) humans probably arrived in the Americas earlier than thought over the course of multiple waves (not a single land bridge crossing window) 2) The level of cultural advancement and settlement range was higher and broader than previously imagined and 3) the New World was largely not a wilderness but an environment controlled by humans (mostly with fire). These three main focuses (origins/population, culture, environment) form the basis for three parts of the book.

This is a good survey of the state of things circa 2005. Given the pace of change it will need to be re-written in a decade or so. I'd been hearing snippets of these theories over the past 20 years and was never attached to the "old views" (who is?), so over-turning them is not a great upset and often a revelation. The details of specific cultures and places were mostly new to me and highly educational. The biography is excellent if not extensive (everything from 16th unpublished documents to Fodors Travel Guide to Mexico), but about a dozen of the most important works are discussed in the first Notes page.
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LibraryThing member maravedi
An interesting read with what will be, for most people, a very fresh perspective on the history of the Western hemisphere. I feel like many of these ideas have permeated my mental space before reading this book but I can't say why. Some of the themes are treated in GUNS, GERMS, & STEEL, others on recent History Channel specials, but 1491 is a good compilation of all these new theories and findings. The writing can be a bit tedious at times; a few to many statements qualified with too many commas, and it seemed to lose steam about 3/4 of the way through (haven't been able to make myself finish it). Still, it's a new and interesting reference. I'd call this a worthy addition to your library's history and archaeological section.… (more)
LibraryThing member Larkken
An extremely balanced discussion of the current understanding of the reality of life in the Americas prior to its "discovery" by Europeans. Since this is not a book by a scholar in the field, but rather a journalist, some of these theories are given more weight, perhaps, than they deserve, but the writing style makes up for that deficit in that this book is widely accessible and interesting to read, with a good narrative flow and a continuous feeling of discovery and newness which is nice to see.… (more)


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