Mann shows how a new generation of researchers equipped with novel scientific techniques have come to previously unheard-of conclusions about the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans: In 1491 there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe. Certain cities--such as Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital--were greater in population than any European city. Tenochtitlán, unlike any capital in Europe at that time, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and immaculately clean streets. The earliest cities in the Western Hemisphere were thriving before the Egyptians built the great pyramids. Native Americans transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already massively "landscaped" by human beings. Pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico developed corn by a breeding process that the journal Science recently described as "man's first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering."--From publisher description.
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.
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.
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 ;)
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.