The author brings a journalistic perspective to this rather extensive review of the anthropological and archeological efforts that have been made over the last fifty years to understand the native cultures of both North and South America that more or less predated the arrival of Columbus in 1492. The book is essentially one long rebuke of the commonly held notion that the Americas were scarcely populated before Columbus and that its inhabitants were invariably uncultured, savage, and nomadic hunter-gatherers living in small tribes operating in pristine wildernesses.
There are any number of key themes that interest the author. The most prominent area for correction, in direct contrast with the conviction of constant wandering, is the tendency of Indian cultures to create centralized, stable living arrangements, dating back several thousand years. Elaborate and sophisticated cities, with both practical and symbolic (religious) buildings, many remaining viable for hundreds of years, have been uncovered all across the Americas with Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, and the Southwestern U.S. being key sites. This urbanization was made possible due to a shift to agriculture for survival with maize, a form of corn, being the principal dietary staple. The surplus production of food supported a cultural and political elite, who then had the time to produce cultural products, direct working forces, and improve the technical infrastructure, such as irrigation systems.
But all has not been straightforward in this broad corrective effort of our ancient history. Because the evidence used to reconstruct the past is so fragmentary and minimal and subject to vastly different interpretations, the conflicts among researchers and academics is a considerable part of the author’s story. For example, there are disagreements among “low-count” and “high-count” theorists concerning the total population of the Americas at any one time, with higher projections being around fifty million. The debate about who were the first arrivals in the Americas, and when and how they came, still rages. Such issues as whether the soil along the Amazon River could have supported large towns still result in bitter denunciations in academic journals.
The author makes clear that the native societies that the Europeans found in both North and South America were mere shells of what once existed. Little did they know that early visitors introduced diseases, like hepatitis and small pox, which virtually wiped out entire populations, forcing Indians to fall back to more primitive modes of living devoid of former cultural complexity. The genetic susceptibility of Indians to these diseases, beyond the lack of immunity gained due to exposure, is discussed. Also, the Europeans did not appreciate the efforts Indians made to shape their environments by such measures as controlled burning of woodlands or controlling the density of wildlife. It is interesting that New Englanders, according to the author, were leery of the democratic and communal tendencies that they found among the Indians, which they saw as undermining their hierarchical social order.
The book is beyond a doubt highly informative, but its lack of organization and even editing gets in the way. The journalistic tendency to overload with facts is evident. It is hardly necessary to give the name of every researcher encountered by the author; that’s why there are notes. Worse, is the author’s tendency to randomly jump among time frames and locales. This is where a detailed time line of Indian societies would have been very helpful.
There’s no doubt that the author leaves himself open to a view that he romanticizes Indian culture. Perhaps the early Indian cultures compare favorably to the Mesopotamians, but one wonders whether such equivalency can be found in regard to the Greeks and Romans. It’s difficult for the reader to answer that question, because, while the author roams widely geographically, there is a noticeable lack of any real detail about any of the Indian cultures. Certainly, our understanding of any of them is miniscule compared to what we know about the Greeks. He doesn’t ignore the violence on both sides of the Atlantic. Some Indian cultures made human sacrifice a part of religious rituals, while Europeans engaged in massive executions to force religious conformity – pretty squeamish stuff, regardless.
The author emphasizes the destructive nature of the European intrusion on Indian societies. That seems exaggerated, because countless sophisticated Indian societies disappeared well before Europeans arrived. Environmental developments and warfare are either given or suggested as reasons for those societies disintegration.
Basically, the interesting aspects of the book outweigh its shortcomings. However, it is clear that this book merely scratches the surface of our early Indian peoples.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (12 of 21 readers found this comment helpful)
redrockbookworm, July 22, 2008 (view all comments by redrockbookworm)
This is one of the most captivating books you will read this year. It will take all of those "truths" you studied so diligently in school and make you question, question, question. Were the Americas (before Columbus) really the unblemished Garden of Eden setting that we have been told, or as Mann purports, were the Native's altering the terrain long before the arrival of Europeans on the scene?
The fact that the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtilan had more inhabitants than Paris and boasted running water and an enclosed sewer system would seem to lend credence to Mann's claims of the native locals shaping their environment and managing their food supplies to satisfy their comfort and convenience levels for many, many years before the appearance of Columbus or Cortez.
Mann's subject matter and writing style as well as his vision, as he attempts to show both sides of this discussion, should assure this "scientific" tome a place of honor on the best seller list. It certainly provides the reader with a lot of food for thought and is definitely a lot more convincing and enthralling than much of the current material residing on the list of best sellers provided by our local newspapers.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (12 of 19 readers found this comment helpful)
Mikel O, June 28, 2007 (view all comments by Mikel O)
Some of will remember how we all learned in science class that Mercury kept one side to the Sun at all times; one face meltingly hot, the other the coldest planet in the solar system; a picture that inspired dozens of sci-fi novelists. Then the scientists said oops, no, we were wrong, Mercury does rotate enough to show all sides to the sun, after all.
Well, remember how we learned that the first Americans came over the Bering land bridge less than 15,000 years ago; crossed Canada through an ice free corridor that closed up behind them, hunting big game all the way? That their hunting caused mass extinctions? That they spread lightly across two continents, living in sparse hunter gatherer communities that were no match for European guns?
Oops -- this is all wrong, too. For me 1491 was like a good thriller, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough, new science in every paragraph. The well-researched picture he shows will turn every idea you held of the New World upside down. Fascinating and mind-boggling.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (17 of 33 readers found this comment helpful)
Peter Saucerman, April 6, 2007 (view all comments by Peter Saucerman)
Revisionist history with a scientific backbone. Charles Mann has succeeded in knitting archaeological and anthropological findings together to turn our orthodox beliefs about the Americas, pre-Columbus, on their heads. Much of this science is not really new and many of the findings are regional and incremental. But his skill in connecting the dots presents a startling new picture of the New World, one quite at odds with the conventional textbook stories of a vast, empty continent. He starts each section with a clear overview of the new view he will be charting, then descends into sometimes complex, sometimes arcane pieces of anthro- or archaeological work. Just as it's getting pretty dense for the lay-reader, he has the good sense to link back to the bigger picture. I learned a good bit about the work of these history detectives, as well as getting a very, very different picture of the peoples that lived here for millennia before Columbus.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (16 of 23 readers found this comment helpful)
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Used Trade Paper
Charles C. Mann
0 stars -
Vintage Books USA -
by Jill Owens,
Charles C. Mann has pulled off an impressive feat — a scholarly, thorough work of history that's almost compulsively readable. In 1491, he summarizes and examines the last thirty years of research into the pre-Columbian Americas, and comes to some startling and exciting conclusions. Mann is an enthusiastic and capable guide, and 1491 is satisfyingly rich with description, anecdote, and example.
by Jill Owens
by Library Journal,
"Mann has done a superb job of analyzing and distilling information, offering a balanced and thoughtful perspective on each of his themes in engaging prose."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"Unless you're an anthropologist, it's likely that everything you know about American prehistory is wrong. Science journalist Mann's survey of the current knowledge is a bracing corrective....An excellent, and highly accessible, survey of America's past."
by Alan Taylor, the Washington Post Book World,
"In sum, Mann tells a powerful, provocative and important story — especially in the chapters on the Andes and Amazonia."
by Kevin Baker, The New York Times Book Review,
"[A]n important corrective — a sweeping portrait of human life in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus....A remarkably engaging writer, [Mann] lucidly explains the significance of everything from haplogroups to glottochronology to landraces."
by Boston Globe,
"Mann has written a landmark of a book that drops ingrained images of colonial America into the dustbin one after the other, such as that of the Pilgrims finding a pristine world of woodlands and guileless natives."
by Providence Journal,
"A must-read survey course of pre-Columbian history — current, meticulously researched, distilling volumes into single chapters to give general readers a broad view of the subject."
by Los Angeles Times,
"[A] concise and brilliantly entertaining thesis. I don't agree with all his big conclusions, but 1491 makes me think of history in a new way."
Mann offers a groundbreaking study that radically alters readers' understanding of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492.
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.