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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars WELL WRITTEN SUMMARY OF RECENT SCHOLARSHIP ON OCCUPATION OF THE AMERICAS BEFORE COLUMBUS, 2 Oct 2006
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This review is from: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage) (Paperback)
There has been much scholarly discussion over the years about pre-Columbian societies in the Americas. How many were there? What technologies did they develop? Did they have writing? What destroyed them? Where is the evidence?

In this book, Charles Mann brought together much of the recent scholarly knowledge, piecing together evidence from across North, Central and South America, to come up with a cohesive image of what the Americas looked like in terms of human occupation before Columbus.

The book's main arguemnt is that the Americas were already heavily populated with as many as 20 million people when Columbus arrived. These people possessed technology very advanced that was not, as much of history tells, puny and weak compared to what Europeans had developed. Agricultural methods were advanced and very productive, providing the basis for the establishment of large sedentary populations, much larger than previously thought. These large populations were mainly destroyed by disease. What we see today are in fact the remaining population after the equivalent of a holocaust, which is hardly a good basis to judge their capabilities and one time glory.

To demonstrate this theory, evidence is gathered from archeology and ancient reports from travellers. From most 16th century explorers, we get a picture of a heavily populated landscape, both in the southeastern US and in the Amazon. However, explorers through the same regions roughtly a century later describe a landscape of peaceful nature without large human interventions. The archeological evidence, as more is discovered, points in the direction of large populations and many characteristics (such as religion and art) of sedentary populations.

Particularly interesting is the section on the Amazon forest, in which the author describes the Amazon not as virginal forest but rather an a human construct, a large garden manipulated by ancient inhabitants, now abandoned. Evidence of these people's technology can be found in unlikely places, such as in the formation of terra preta, a highly fertile soil in a land well known for poor soils for agriculture. Additionally, the raised fields of the Bolivian Amazon also point to a highly sophisticated and organized society that would need to be surplus producing in order to spare the manpower for such great public works.

An interesting addendum to his argument is about the freedom enjoyed by antive americans, which is much more similar to the freedom we enjoy today and seek to expand, than the Europeans at the time enjoyed. The author does a superb job of piecing together evidence from across the continent to come to interesting conclusions about our ancestors.

I highly recommend this book not only to anyone interested in the history of the Americas before Columbus, but to anyone looking for an interesting read about our history as humans.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The year before...,, 7 Mar 2011
By 
John P. Jones III (Albuquerque, NM, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage) (Paperback)
It's a great title, and a great book. Though some reviewers have fussed at the sub-title, claiming that there weren't really new revelations in the book, should I be ashamed to admit that almost all the book was history of the best kind; the history I did not know?

Of course the book is not literally about that year; it covers the period from the very first arrival of humans in America, which Mann claims is substantially before the 12,000 BC Bering Straits land bridge arrival that I had been taught; and it extends to much beyond the initial arrival of the Europeans, to cover their interactions with the natives. The author devotes major sections to the civilizations in what is now Peru, and Mexico; the prehistoric finds in eastern New Mexico; the Cahokia "mound builders" around modern-day St. Louis; the arrival of the Pilgrims in New England; and life in "Amazonia."

Charles Mann is not a "scholar"; instead he has a journalist background writing for "Science" and the "Atlantic Monthly," and I think the reader is much better served as a result. He displays humbling erudition, managing to incorporate observations by Nabokov and Pascal, while also capable of giving a concise explanation of the Carbon-14 dating process in one paragraph. His central premise is to debunk the idea that not many people were in America, in 1491, and that they were "primitives," devoid of higher learning. His first chapter is entitled "Holmberg's Mistake," after the academic who promoted the concept, and Mann quotes from historians George Bancroft, Samuel Eliot Morison and Hugh Trevor-Roper who supported this view. Time and again throughout the book Mann has the gift for selecting an appropriate analogy to make his point, in this case: "It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving." Mann certainly does not paint a Rousseauian paradise prior to 1492, with observations like "Because human beings rarely volunteer to spend their days loading baskets with heavy rocks to build public monuments..." nonetheless, he stresses the all too human tendency to denigrate the living conditions and morality of those from whom you are taking their property and land.

My copy is thoroughly "marked up," with passages that I want to return to, and consider, and even quote in the future. For example: "trade in goods was important, but it was the trade in ideas that mattered." Mann was discussing the rise of the empires in central Mexico, but it is at least as important to contemplate today, when, nominally, we have such a flow of ideas, but in practice the barriers to the acceptance of new ideas is high. Or how about expressive formulations: "Peru is the cow-catcher on the train of continental drift." In terms of establishing the "glue," that "animating ideology" that holds a society together, and he cites "manifest destine and "Mission civilisatrice," as examples; for the Mexican leader, Tlacaelel, Mann says the following: "He came up with a corker: a theogony that transformed the Mexica into keepers of the cosmic order."

Mann writes well, he thinks well, and has presented an excellent synthesis of some of the current theories and research on pre-Columbian America, and what happened to the natives after the arrival of the Europeans. There are some interesting appendixes, particularly the one on calendar calculations. Humbling also is the bibliography, which underscores why there was so much history I did not know. Are there mistakes of fact, as some of the low star reviewers indicate? Probably, in a work so broad in scope, and I trust he would correct in a revision. Are there mistakes in emphasis? Is he too "political correct," in other words? Not for me; think the images of the "innocent white settlers" in those wagon trains being attacked by the "savages," for no reason at all, could still use some additional correction with a dose of reality. Very well done, a solid 5-star read.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on February 08, 2010)
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A continental vacant lot?, 6 Jan 2006
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
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Many thousands of years ago, people arrived in the Western Hemisphere from Asia. How many years, how many people and how many times they made the incursion are all topics of this book. How they lived has been the subject of increasingly intense investigation. Mann has assembled much research, both old and modern, to present a sweeping analysis of what the Europeans found when they arrived millennia later from the opposite direction. In a compelling and well-structured account, he offers an iconoclastic analysis of what the Americas were before Columbus' arrival.
Mann's thesis is that the Western Hemisphere was far more densely populated than our school courses [when they touched on the indigenous peoples at all] led us to believe. After fitful starts along the Atlantic seaboard, European colonists felt they'd entered a nearly empty continent. The sweeping expansion of the United States seemed to reinforce the notion of an "empty land". Recent archaeological finds and closer examination of the conquistadores' accounts suggest otherwise. It's now known that many urban centres of high population density existed in the Mississippi Valley, in central Mexico and throughout South America. The peoples living there had complex societies and economies, with trading and cultural influences extending vast distances. Intricate calendar systems, including use of "zero" as a real number, existed centuries before Europeans developed the idea.
Why did these cities and their inhabitants not survive to greet the invaders? There are the accounts of Cortes in Tenochtitlan and Pizarro saw Inka settlements, but population conglomerates seem rare in most accounts. According to Mann, the culprit was European disease resulting from the development of agriculture. Farming and pastoralism arose long after the arrival of those Asians to the Western Hemisphere. The two populations, isolated from each other led to differing immunities. Centuries of co-habitation with domestic animals like horses, pigs and fowl led to the transmission of many poxes, especially smallpox, to humans. The European and West Asian survivors developed a resistance to the infections. The indigenous peoples of the Americas, who domesticated few animals, had no such resistance. Multitudes of people were swept away, not by conquistadores and "cowboys", but by invisible microorganisms introduced by the earliest explorers. The pestilence left them vulnerable when more Europeans arrived. The result was the identification of the "Indians" as backward, illiterate, vulnerable and hardly worthy of serious study. Mann describes this attitude as "Holmberg's Mistake" - anthropologists finding of remnant peoples living in a manner European observers believed perpetual.
Mann's search for answers to what the Western Hemisphere was like in "1491" took him many places meeting a host of researchers and relying on a massive document base. Skimming the notes and bibliography shows a preponderance of sources published in recent years. Although Mann gives voice to those who contend the numbers are poorly derived, there's little doubt he sympathises with the new wave of research findings. He provides useful maps, that almost overwhelming bibliography and a set of appendices to explain terms, describe a possible binary language of the Inka and "Calendar Math". With the mass of information and the evidence of accomplishments preceding those of its European infectors and conquerers, it's not unexpected when he questions use of the term "New World" in referring to the Americas. In regard to what was lost, he contends the disintegration of the societies in the Americas wasn't just the loss to those communities, "but to the human enterprise as a whole". [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the ruins all around us, 3 April 2014
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This review is from: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage) (Paperback)
This book takes archaeology way beyond delving into ruined structures -- to examinations of region-wide environmental management systems. Beyond the large numbers of ruined towns and monuments left in the wake of the great Western epidemics, Mann shows the staggeringly vast evidence of environmental engineering across the hemisphere. Even the Amazon basin yields a universe of population centers and managed landscapes. The ruins of these civilizations lie all around us, and we hardly noticed because we hardly looked. Both the miscalculations and the successes of these civilizations can be traced, and their stories are dramatic. In a deliberate effort to dispel the impression that pre-Columbian cultures were simple, Mann includes enough complexity to leave the reader confused but intrigued. The best thing, however, is that the successes of these societies, such as the forms of permaculture developed in Oaxaca, Amazonia, Peru, or New England, offer renewed hope for the future of intelligent design.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Changed my view on the Americas..., 3 Feb 2014
By 
Sherlock (Sandwich, Kent) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage) (Paperback)
This book really challenged my (relatively limited) knowledge regarding the Americas pre-1492... I find it slightly astonishing this should be so - thie idea that there were large towns, dense-ish populations, widespread land management in North America was a revelation. I had imagined an 'empty country' just waiting to be 'put to good use', perhaps this is the 'propaganda' we have been drip-fed by Hollywood et al.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting, 26 Nov 2009
By 
R Bain (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage) (Paperback)
With very little prior knowledge of the subject, I bought 1491 half expecting that I would eventually get a bit lost and end up dipping in and out (but that I could still impress my friends for a while by having it on my coffee table). I ended up storming through it from cover to cover - including some of the appendices. Mann imbues the story he tells with such a sense of excitement and mystery that you really do find yourself desperate to find out what happened next. He also manages to work in personal stories without compromising the rigour and seriousness of his writing. Who'd have thought the history of maize would have me missing my stop on the tube?

This is a book not just about a fascinating part of human history, but about the history of history: the debates surrounding how pre-Columbian America has been understood (and misunderstood), why a lot of the misconceptions persist today, and how it ties in with very modern concerns like race relations and environmentalism. It does get quite dense at times, and I don't think I've ever read a book that contained so many words I had never heard used before, but it's well worth it.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book, captivating, 18 Nov 2014
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This review is from: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage) (Paperback)
Excellent book, captivating, written by a person with great knowledge of the matter. It challenges much of our preconceptions about the Americas before Columbus, and tells us about the scientific advances and new findings about the pre-colonized continent. One of the main thesis is that the diseases brought by Europeans created the ilusion of an 'empty continent' as they probably decimated up to 95% of the native population. I found interesting the descriptions about the way of life of the Indians and the comparisons between ancient Americans and Euro-Asians. The book ends with the conclusion that the Native Americans also influentiated the colonists and their ideas about freedom, specially regarding the Haudenosaunee of the Northeast. However, I was troubled about the so-called "Holmberg's Mistake" Charles C. Mann states in his book that the Siriono were the result of a culture shattered by disease in the 1920's. He also says that in the 1940's only 150 Siriono were left. However, Allan R. Holmberg in his book "Nomads of the Long Bow" says that in the 1940's there were two 2000 Siriono and 150 were left in the Bolivian Government Indian School, not in total. Moreover, the Siriono were visited by missionaries in 1693 and by a French scientist in 1825 and Holmberg had access to those documents, translating parts of them into his book. Moreover, the Siriono tell nothing about the supposed destruction of their villages which had happened relatively recently. Nevertheless, this is a brilliant book though my confidence in it has been affected.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Pre-European book, 7 Oct 2012
By 
John Boyle (Ruswarp, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage) (Paperback)
It is a good read and only contains a few of what I would term as opinions versus a multitude of facts. Then again there are few records from these earlier civilisations and what survived the obliteration of their history by the incomers.
I continue to be amazed at the level of civilisation (in Eurocentric terms) at the time when Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book and introduction to pre 1491 American history, 7 Oct 2009
By 
G. W. Mclean "Leonidas" (Salisbury, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage) (Paperback)
Mann's writing style is highly readable and has produced a really excellent book as attempting to encompass such a wide and varied period of history is no mean feat. Although as he admits in the afterward he has omitted some parts of the America's, mainly its upper northern and southern extremes, it does not suffer at all and it feels at the end that all has been covered. The structuring of the book is excellent as the continuous maps; diagrams and symbols intermixed among the pages produce a flowing and well placed read. Moreover Mann's writing style is highly engaging and rarely does it descend into monotony.

Highly recommended, the subject is in itself incredibly interesting with the book being a great introduction to the period. Although I have to agree with the other reviewers in that the constant flipping between centuries and locations can be rather disjointed and there is more to be found deeper in the subject matter, it is still a enjoyable introduction to the period.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good story, hidden by the author, 28 Aug 2009
By 
Steve Keen "therealus" (Herts, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage) (Paperback)
Prior to the arrival of Columbus, the American continent, north to south, was home to thriving communities of people who built extensive road networks, cities of heroic proportions and sophisticated water management systems which often defied the inhospitability of the environments in which they existed. Over the years some of these civilisations conspired to destroy themselves and each other, some were irreparably damaged by the depredations of acquisitive, disease-carrying Europeans, and others mysteriously faded and vanished. Until quite recently, virtually all have been ostracised by mainstream history books (particularly, Mann points out, American school textbooks), and those that have not have been misrepresented, misunderstood and misnamed.

For me, one revelation of Charles Mann's 1491 stands out as testimony to the sheer depth of the civilisations of which he writes: the story of maize. Maize, or corn, that deliciously sweet, dazzlingly yellow, phenomenally versatile crop was one of the cornerstones of the pre-Colombian American diet. It was bred to come in all sorts of colours as well as yellow, that here in Europe we seldom if ever get to see. And it stands beside, and possibly even above, the potato, as one of the lasting bequests of the Americas to the diet of the rest of the world as we boil it, barbecue it, douse it in butter, turn it into tortillas and pop it.

Yet it has so far proven impossible to identify in the wild the plant from which maize was derived, such is the timeframe of its relationship with humanity.

This is, indeed, a captivating story, and is only one of thousands which reside in this book.

Unfortunately, Charles Mann is not the person who should have got the job of telling it. Somewhere in this sprawling, chaotic, episodic account there's a good book hiding, which tells a coherent tale of life in the Americas before Columbus. But for all his ability to dig up the past, Mann has been unable to excavate that book.

My principal objections come down to three things.

Firstly, there appears no logic in the organisation of the book as it careens around the American continent, and the centuries, apparently at random.

Secondly, the pre-Colombian narrative is incessantly intruded upon by the post-Colombian, with the result that certainly much of the first third of the book is more about the Conquistadors and the Pilgrims than about anything that was on the continent before them.

And similarly, there's just a little too much Charles Mann in the book, as he heroically explores the continent and interviews other explorers. He's a little like a DJ who can't stop talking over the music.

Not that there is no purpose to all this. He explains how some of the misconceptions about Americans before 1492 came about: through treating one native community as representative of the whole, through simple misinterpretation, and often through a misplaced notion of European superiority which led some to simply ignore the evidence before them. He also emphasises the sheer vastness of the continent, as in one episode where the plane he is in nearly runs out of fuel over the wildness of the rainforest.

A part of the account that stood out for me was the destruction of so much of the written legacy of the Americas - sometimes self-inflicted, far too often inflicted by Europeans. In Europe itself we are familiar with the classic tales of the Old World, from Gilgamesh, The Odyssey and Beowulf through to Genji Monogatari, The 1001 Nights and so on. Where, I wondered, are their New World analogues? What happened to the New World's Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Bible or Quran? Who was their Sun Tzu, their Aristotle, their Omar Khayyam? After all, what's a civilisation without its historians, philosophers, poets and playwrights? Did they disappear? What is the view of the archaeologists, anthropologists and cultural historians?

Mann touches on this question himself, breezing through it in a single paragraph where he touches on the difficulties of societies lacking a written language and reliant on oral traditions, and the fact that Mesoamerican texts are slowly giving up their secrets. And that's about it (apart from his afterthought/Appendix which, frankly, doesn't add much value). He then reverts to default position and tells us about what the early Europeans reported, before more or less totally dismissing this as a source because of the self-serving nature of many of these accounts (he briefly discusses, for example, the origin of stories about the Amazon warrior women). The outcome is less than satisfactory, sad to say.

Towards the end, Mann begins to draw his conclusions, a principal, and by far the most startling one of which is that, far from a pristine natural environment, the American continent in 1491 was in large part a creation of its human inhabitants, who had developed effective land and animal management techniques in order to enrich the soil and maximise its yield. Mann compares the sustained fertility of soils in certain parts of the Americas with those of the formerly superfertile Middle East, now exhausted. The arrival of Europeans following 1492, in many different ways, disrupted the established management system, one result of which was a short-term explosion in the populations of numerous species of animal. Lewis and Clark's encounters with massive herds of buffalo (see for example the account in David Lavender's The Way To The Western Sea), and Audubon's account of a flock of billions of passenger pigeon were snapshots of a temporary America, created and relatively quickly destroyed by the European colonists. (This throws a whole new light on Amanda Petrusich's contention, in her book It Still Moves, that artifice is authenticity in America, at least the northern part of the landmass. It has been thus for millennia, it appears.)

Nevertheless, Mann also points out that the prospect of millions of marauding buffalo, or billions of the superdestructive passenger pigeon (which would vomit a previous meal rather than pass up its next, and made a profession of totally stripping farms of their entire maize crop) is not one that bears contemplation.

But yet again, as fascinating as all this is, it is not 1491 he's talking about here, it's 1493 going on 1880.

Altogether, then, whilst there is plenty to capture the imagination here, a disappointingly small amount of it addresses the title of the book.

Footnote: I'm still irritated that secular books like this one insist on BC and AD as markers. It's not perfect, but more mature and culturally aware writers use BCE and CE. Again, Mann refers to this himself in yet another Appendix, but I didn't find his explanation especially convincing.
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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage)
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage) by Charles C. Mann (Paperback - 10 Oct 2006)
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