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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. Scientists have estimated that the death tolls could have reached up to 95% of the population, that by the time Cortes and his man made their way through the Americas, the diseases they brought with them could have spread so far ahead that whole populations, whole civilisations could have been wiped out. It's hard to imagine. You can understand how any civilisation could collapse with such a catastrophic epidemic.

He also argues that the pristine wilderness reported in so many early accounts was precisely a result of the wiping out of the native peoples. If you remove an apex predator, species lower on the food chain thrive. He argues that the reason early accounts report of immense herds of buffalo, massive flocks of passenger pigeon, was not because this was the way the continent had always been, but because this was Nature's reaction to the removal of these species' predators and competitors. So when ecologists talk about the damage colonisation did to the ecosystem, they may be harking back to something that never existed in the first place. The native peoples shaped the landscape around in much the same way we do now - perhaps with more of a long-term view and with more balance and stability - but they left their traces, just the same.

I could not put this down. When textbooks talk about the ancient civilisations in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, it seems criminal that they pass over Mesoamerica in just a few paragraphs. This should be required reading.
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"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.

The book's main weakness is that it doesn't have a simple thesis and structure. Ostensibly focused on new research, the book often tells about the new findings in such a leisurely and anecdotal way that what you learn is more at the factoid level than in fleshing out a picture of what happened. As a result, there's a lot of "what if" information here that's not likely to be fully confirmed or denied anytime soon. You'll come away realizing the you need to keep an open mind about many aspects of life in the Americas before 1492 without being able to firmly state what did occur . . . with the exception of descriptions of conquests among some of the larger empires. I found the book's photographs and maps greatly helped to make the scientific studies come to life so I could integrate what was being said into a personal perspective.

Mr. Mann is very fair in presenting questions and rebuttals from scholars about hypotheses and competing conclusions so that you won't feel as though you only have the choice of accepting all the latest studies without question.

My overall reaction to the book was to want to learn more about these studies. I hope that scholars in these subjects will be encouraged to publish well-illustrated books at the popular science reading level for those who would like to know more about the lessons from earlier civilizations that we should be applying today. Inquiring minds will be interested, I'm sure.
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on 31 December 2015
I bought this book in order to learn more about the pre Colombian Americas. The first quarter of the book was quite interesting with the realisation that it probably lived much more people in the Americas than I had previously known and about physical remains like the geoglyphs. Mann’s ambition is to dispel the myth of pre-Colombian America as utter wilderness and primitive cultures. But is this what people really believe- other than pure racists? Tourists from all over the world are flocking to admire Maya temples, Aztecs, Olmecs and Inca ruins. People of general knowledge know that they developed rather sophisticated urban structures with water supply, advanced agriculture development etc. Is this knowledge something new? A rapid search on Internet shows it isn’t. Even classic books about the conquistadors do not hide their admiration for the Meso American cultures.

Mann has rather fallen into the “post-colonialist mind trap”. After decades of work with donor-funded projects in developing countries, I have experienced the advancement of the post-colonialist agenda. Post-colonialists seems to be victims of shame and honour thinking so that it becomes racist to describe cultures as different from the European standard. Post-colonialism has unintentionally become a Eurocentric worldview that condemns any description of other people or cultures as different or exotic. Mann’s book is obsessed with an agenda where he tries to describe how pre Colombian America not was less advanced than Europe at the time. As an example he describes Inca iron making and they were as advanced as Europeans, but that they valued other qualities than the ones best used for weapons. Well, but if so, was this not a cultural decision from the Inca society that made a difference?

What I hoped to find, but didn’t, was a description of the cultures in pre Colombian America according to the latest’s findings. Mann talks about physical remains, not about cultures – obviously to avoid valuation of differences. However, you don’t need to speculate in comparison with other cultures, but describe cultures in their own right. As the social anthropologist Victor Turner once said; “we don’t have “primitive” people, even though some groups lives in a simpler technological environment than others. Peoples minds and emotional life are rich and complex everywhere”. Different cultures give different results all the time, but that does not mean that we necessarily value people in different cultures differently!

When he comes with statements like this: “Alliance through royal marriage was as common in eleven-century Mixteca as it was in seventeenth-century Europe”, I get the impression that the author have little knowledge of cultural anthropology and that the policy of marriage alliance or lineage have been found to be the standard throughout history in all known human societies. It is very little description of social life, religion, political structure and value systems and its possible consequences. The pre-Colombians are only victims of the Europeans, which is true in one way but not the only truth. The book is narrow minded and a one-dimensional description or rather assumptions of the pre-colonial America at a technical level with very little evidence or references. Mann just refers to someone who says this or that. If you want a deeper understanding of Americas before Columbus, we have many books that give far wider perspective on its culture, like “Handbook to life in the ancient Maya world” by Lynn V. Foster. We also have the remaining literature from the pre Columbian times, like Popol Vuh, Books of the Chilam Balam and others that explains their social organisation, universe and beliefs, but these are hardly referred to or analysed by Mann.

Sometimes I wonder how sober the author is when he first justify why slash and burn agriculture was used because it is the limit that a culture not can surpass in the Amazon rainforest (Location 5847 in Kindle edition) an about 20 pages later, he claims that it is destructive and that “Slash and burn is a modern intruition caused by Europeans who brought the iron tools” (location 6012) and then again claim that slash and burn is the most ecologically friendly way to grow because it minimizes the time in which the ground is unprotected (location 6194). The book is unstructured and very talkative. He can use 50 pages to argue that maize was not a domesticated crop, but invented. This might be true, but any clear idea or theory drowns in talks.

It is very few references to findings of classical anthropology. Lewis Henry Morgan who was the founder of modern cultural anthropology through his studies of North American Indians is not mentioned. In his studies Morgan obviously admired the traditional culture and he was not a racist but made a rather romantic description of the Indians life. Claude Levy-Strauss studied cultures and myths in order to demonstrate all cultures similarities in spite of differences in technological development. Mann does not describe cultures and what peoples beliefs could lead to. In his world, people are simply products of the natural environment they live in and victims of outside forces, disasters and colonialists.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 September 2014
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.

When it came to their environment, Indians managed the land just as intensively as we do. Whole regions of what are now the American mid-West were scorched by fire. It seems that vast swathes of North America were vast market-gardens. Even the Amazon is less of a pristine wilderness than we suppose. Presumably, the impetus to abandon hunter-gathering and adopt agriculture was down to population pressures. At a given population threshold, hunter-gathering is no longer a viable option for ensuring that people stay fed. One assumes, then, that the sorts of pressures that led to the adoption of agriculture in the Middle East existed in the Americas, too. Although the author does not say as much, the impression one is left is a bucolic, though managed, paradise, and hence `superior' to our contemporary agricultural practices. In fact, it all sounds too good to be true. Was it like that? Did Indian agriculture suppress biodiversity in the lands in which it was practised? To what extent were Indians prone to the vagaries of weather and crop failure? Were there famines? Here the author offers no data to enable us to make more assessments. In fact, do sufficient data exist to allow us to answer these questions? I would have liked more detail here.

What is clear is that, strictly speaking, the Indians did not live in harmony with nature. They sought to shape and tame it, for their own purposes. When the Europeans pushed into the interior of North America, they found a wilderness empty of people and mistook it for a primeval landscape. It wasn't. Imported Old World diseases had gone before the settlers, sweeping aside the land's managers. Impenetrable, trackless forests grew on the sites of indigenous fields and orchards.

The devastation of Indian populations by European diseases is a neuralgic political issue. Europeans' diseases killed more Indians than their weapons. Does that excuse what the settlers did? It does not. But it is important to assess why indigenous populations were so susceptible to diseases from the Old World. On the face of it, the answer is obvious. Indians did not have immunity to diseases that had co-evolved with humans in the Old World. But the rate of die-off was extraordinary, as high as 90 per cent, a rate far higher than Europe's death rate from the plague in the 14th Century. The answer may be the narrower genetic diversity among indigenous peoples in the Americas, perhaps stemming from a population bottleneck among the first migrants to the continent.

As mentioned at the outset, we cringe at the sorts of stereotypes that used to be common currency before the 1960s. But radical narratives that arose in reaction to that, informed as they often were (and are) by current political imperatives, often failed to do justice to the past. I think that this book, while not being the last word on the topics on which it covers, succeeds at least in trying to understand the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas on their own terms, not ours.
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on 4 May 2016
One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in years, well written and accessible to the “laymen”. It was equally thrilling to read about agricultural achievements of the Mesoamerican peoples, Inca politics, Chico Norte culture with their love for mummification, significance of haplogroups and much much more.
I particularly loved the coda, where C.Mann implies that native peoples might have had a far greater cultural impact on the colonists, Europeans and the rest of the world than previously thought possible or “likely”. How much grander and richer our world would’ve been, had more American cultures’ survived the disease and the expansion!
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on 17 February 2016
This one of those books that challenges your assumptions and many attitudes that have become statements of fact in the common ways of looking at ecology and green issues. (Like many of Jared Diamond's works) it makes you think, in this case about what was there in the Americas, how it operated, how sophisticated it was and how European intervention was to change the status quo. And of course it wasn't open to go back to what was in part an idyll - politics, technology, disease and imported pests changed the game forever.
I read this book on an electronic device which was fine apart from the fact that the maps which are critical to full understanding of Mann's ideas are largely useless on a small screen.
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on 30 May 2008
My partner bought me this for my birthday and it is the best present I have ever had. I read it from cover to cover and fell asleep every night reading it. it challenged me to think about my First Nation Euro Racist assumptions. Fantastic. I have gone on to read more and more and challenge my short view of history. Please re\ad this book.
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on 19 August 2013
I am trying to read up on ancient civilizations from all over the world. It took a while to choose one that covers the history of American civilizations. So far I have not regrets, I am pleasantly surprised. History books can be quite dry, but this book does a very good job at making history come alive and telling us why it is so important to do so at the same time.

I would recommend it to anyone interested in history, development of humankind and in the Americas and its native peoples.
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on 14 January 2014
I was given my first copy of this book and then bought another for my best friend as a Christmas present. Though usually I am a very fast reader, this is a slow and thought provoking read dense with facts. Really really interesting.
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on 16 May 2013
Extremely interesting, exciting and well written book about the America's before Columbus. Just as readable as Mann's 1493 about what changed in the world - nearly everything - with the discovery of the Americas.
My understanding of the world changed after having read those two books.
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