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1491: The Americas before Columbus Paperback – 6 Nov 2006

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Product details

  • Paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books; New edition edition (6 Nov. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1862078769
  • ISBN-13: 978-1862078765
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 3.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 363,403 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

'Brilliantly insightful and unsettling book' Paul Muldoon, TLS *'A brilliant and startling exploration of the largely unrecognised great prehistoric cultures of the Americas' Popular Science Review 'Mann rewrites the history of the new world before Columbus. It should be compulsory reading for anyone teaching the history of the Americas' Tribune 'A well- researched and racily written new book... There are few better introductory books on the civilisations of pre- Columbian America, and none so up- to- date' The Spectator 'An immensely valuable book to anyone interested in agriculture and ecology as well as history and archeology. It is also rich in gossip about academic squabbles' Morning Star

About the Author

Charles Mann is the co-author of four books, including The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in 20th Century Physics and Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species. He is the correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and Science magazines, and editorial co-ordinator for the internationally best-selling Material World books. He lives in Massachusetts.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By C. Ball TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 3 April 2012
Format: Paperback
Rarely has a non-fiction book engrossed me so. This is an intensely interesting read, summarising cogently many decades of archaeological, anthropological, botanical, biological and historical debate.

It is incredible to me that the age-old myth about the Americas as being a virtually empty 'pristine wilderness' is still promulgated: a land inhabited by tribes who lived so lightly on the land that they had no civilisations, no cities, none of the hallmarks of what we would call 'civilisation', people who had lived the same way for hundreds and thousands of years, with little change of evolution. As Mann argues in this book, almost every part of that statement is utterly wrong. And yet even today it is the myth that seems to have taken root. And to a large extent part of the reason that myth has been promulgated and believed is because it lets Europeans off the hook, so to speak - it makes Columbus and Cortes and the Pilgrim Fathers justified in retrospect, because if the land was empty, the argument went, it was okay to move in. Right?

Except the land wasn't empty. Far from it. There is a great amount of evidence that shows that the Americas may once have been the most populated part of the globe. When Europe was still mostly an empty, ice-choked expanse, people were living in the Americas in cities, thousands of people, even millions. Thinks of the Maya, the Incas, the Aztecs. And what happened to them, that by the time of the European colonisation, the land was seen as empty?

In this book Mann explores the impact of European diseases on the people of the Americas, and it's incredibly sobering to read.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 10 Jan. 2012
Format: Paperback
"What is the conclusion then?" -- 1 Corinthians 14:15 (NKJV)

Accurately describing the past is tricky business. Part of the problem comes in being unaware of our own thinking habits that stall our ability to perceive accurately what is in front of us. More significantly, lots of partial evidence can point in a variety of directions, many of which may be ignored. Further, there's a tendency to pick a view that will draw attention . . . causing "spectacular" explanations over more cautiously chosen ones. Ultimately, it's just that the past is so large, complex, and shifting that it's beyond our power to capture.

1491 is not so much about what life was like before Columbus in North and South America as it is about the methodological and intellectual problems with identifying what has gone before us . . . particularly in the absence of written records that we can decipher and understand. In the course of exploring this broad theme, Charles C. Mann does a solid job of contrasting traditional beliefs about pre-Columbian times (small populations of "uncivilized" people who lived in the middle of a nearly pristine environment, little changed over thousands of years) with more recent scholarship that suggests the Americas may have had enormous populations relative to Europe that were soon decimated by disease from Europeans, very sophisticated civilizations, and advanced practices for controlling the environment that we would do well to emulate today. I came away with an appreciation that tracking down what really happened is probably the work of many future centuries of research. In any event, those who "assume" European superiority in 1491 can learn a lot from reading about the contrary evidence as described by Mr. Mann.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By F Henwood TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 14 Sept. 2014
Format: Paperback
Fashions change. We cringe at the depiction of `Red Indians' from 1950s westerns. Radicals in the 1960s put the adjective `noble' back before the noun `savage'. One well-known British environmental activist flatters himself by calling himself `Sitting Bull.' It's obvious what the ideological assumptions of his moniker are. He's making certain assumptions about the nature of the past. But what was the truth about the nature of the peoples that inhabited the Americas before Columbus' arrival in 1492?

This book hazards some answers. It manages to avoid (mostly) bringing overt contemporary ideological concerns into the issues it discusses. The one exception is the coda chapter, in which the author seems to suggest that contemporary ideas of human rights owe their inspiration to the examples of indigenous societies in the North Eastern United States. It is the weakest chapter of the book, in terms of referencing and providing supporting authorities. But this is to quibble.

The book is structured around theme rather than a linear narrative. It covers a lot of topics: the dating of the first settlement of the Americas, the impact of disease on native demographics, Indian environmental management, among other things. It brings us up to date on current controversies like whether the Amazon could support advanced societies (for a long time, it was thought not. But scholars are increasingly thinking differently). It is well written, and the author illustrates many of the issues by reporting conversations with academic specialists in the field which makes what would otherwise be arcane academic disputes very accessible. For me, by far the most interesting discussions in the book were the chapters on Indian land management and the impact of European diseases.
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