30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 2 October 2006
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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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)
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
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]
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 3 April 2014
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.
on 18 November 2014
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 illusion 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 influenced the colonists and their ideas about freedom, specially regarding the Haudenosaunee of the Northeast.
The author also relies on dubious evidence to claim that the Americas were first inhabited earlier than we thought. All genetic evidence points to the peopling of the Americas between 15,000 and 20,000 B.P and all waves of migration came from Asia. The prehistoric archaeological sites are much less than their European counterparts pointing to a much later migration.
Also, the author dismisses the 'overkill hypotheses' relying on shaky arguments. According to this theory, humans led to the extinction (through hunting) of thirty-four of the forty-seven genera of large mammals in North America and fifty out of sixty in South America, including saber-tooth cats, camels, horses. The author dismisses this theory attributing it to climate change, forgetting that the same thing happened in Australia where twenty-three of the twenty-four animal species weighing 50 kg or more disappeared shortly after human arrival 50,000 ago. Time and time again analyses yield the same results: the freshest dung balls and the most recent camel bones date to the period when humans flooded America, between 12,000 and 9,000 BC. Only in one area have scientists discovered younger dung balls: on several Caribbean islands, in particular Cuba and Hispaniola, they found petrified ground-sloth scat dating to about 5,000 BC. This is exactly the time when the first humans managed to cross the Caribbean Sea and settle these two large islands.
The author is a journalist and wants to challenge our preconceptions and portray the native Americans as more sophisticated people than we thought. However, he, in some cases, acts as their lawyer absolving their ancestors of the massive extinction of animals (when this happened in other parts of the globe) and missing important information in Holmberg's book. Trying to prove that the Americas were inhabited earlier than we thought, he goes against all archaeological and genetic evidence (see Spencer Well's book 'The Journey of Man').
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 3 February 2014
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.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 26 November 2009
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.
on 7 October 2012
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.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 7 October 2009
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.
on 2 November 2015
Turns one's received ideas of the Americas upside-down and I haven't even finished it.