1491: New Revelations About the Americas Before Columbus Book Review

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1491, by Charles Mann, is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Thanks to a lifelong interest in Plains Indian cultures, I thought I knew more about American Indian history than most white people, and technically I probably do. But this book still managed to blow my mind – repeatedly – with some of the information it contained about pre-Columbian life.

It begins with an argument that will be familiar to most people with more than a passing knowledge of pre-Columbian history: that there were far more people living in the Americas in 1491 than most historians and archaeologists have traditionally assumed. 19th century estimates put the figure as low as 10 million people in all of North and South America, and the mainstream estimate today is about 50 million. Mann argues, carefully backed by evidence from primary sources and archaeological digs, that the population may actually have been closer to that estimated by the “high-counters” – as much as 90-112 million!

It is extremely likely that in excess of 90% of the population was destroyed in the aftermath of Columbus’s discovery of America, primarily by epidemics of Eurasian diseases such as smallpox, to which the indigenous people of the Americas had little or no immunity, though many were also killed directly through war, slavery, etc. Many of the victims would have died without ever knowing that Europeans existed, but the devastation of the population had long-lasting effects on both native cultures and the American landscape.

Mann goes on to argue that pre-Columbian Indian populations were not just larger and more culturally and technologically sophisticated than previously assumed, but that they also had a greater impact on the American landscape. He argues that what appeared to early European explorers to be untrammeled wilderness was in many cases what remained of once-carefully tended gardens and fields that had become abandoned and overgrown following the holocaust of the local human population. This is the largest and most fascinating part of the book, with examples drawn from many regions and cultures across the Americas. As in the first section, Mann is careful to show the evidence for his claims, and also does a good job covering the opposing arguments in areas where there is much still up for debate, such as a bitter and ongoing dispute between archaeologists Betty Meggers, Anne Roosevelt, and their supporters about pre-Columbian Amazonian cultures.

My only real complaint about the book is that it focuses much more on Mesoamerica than North America, so while the Mesoamerican stuff is extremely interesting and was in many cases totally new to me, there are big gaps in the coverage of North America. Sadly for me, the Plains region is almost entirely ignored, although there is some interesting stuff about the moundbuilding cultures of the nearby Midwest and Mississippi regions.

1491 is also, unfortunately, a somewhat dangerous book, and there is a certain type of person I would be extremely hesitant to recommend it to. It lays out a lot of pretty convincing evidence that humans have had a massive impact on American ecosystems and landscapes for thousands of years; that, in fact, certain iconic American landscapes may have been partially CREATED by human intervention. In certain minds, information of this sort could become a blunt weapon to justify the continued exploitation and destruction of America’s remaining wild places. As someone approaching the book from the perspective of a lifelong environmentalist, however, what struck me over and over again while reading was how careful American Indian land management actually was. Although Mann presents multiple examples of Indian cultures that failed due partially or entirely to ecological overshoot, he also finds many examples of cultures that managed the landscape intensively yet sustainably.

One of the most striking examples comes from the Amazon rainforest, which Mann argues was treated essentially as a massive orchard by pre-Columbian cultures in the region. He argues that the primarily nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures that characterize indigenous peoples in the region today are most likely a historical anomaly – that many of them are likely to be the descendants of settled, agricultural people who survived the epidemics that swept through the region in the 16th and 17th centuries but were forced back into the nomadic lifestyle by demographic collapse. Instead of logging the forest, growing crops for a few years until the soil is exhausted, and moving on as all too many modern farmers and ranchers in the region do, pre-Columbian Indians found a way to preserve the fertility of normally nutrient-poor rainforest soils for centuries through the creation of terra preta. Created primarily between 450 BC and 950 AD, the terra preta soils of the Amazon remain fertile today. Now that’s some long-term planning! Although the population supported by such techniques would have been far lower than the modern world even if the “high counters” are correct, I thought the book offered some very interesting implications for how modern societies could improve the sustainability of our own land management practices.

Highly recommended!

My rating: (5 / 5)

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