Charles Mann




Date Reviewed:

March 22, 2008

thought this was an excellent book! 1491 describes the New World before the arrival of Columbus in a completely different light. Rather than a pristine wilderness that was lightly inhabited by Native Americans, Mann describes large populations and civilizations that were equal in size to anything existing in Europe at that time. However, the first European explorers brought devastating diseases: cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis - to which the natives had no defense. Mann speculates that the resulting epidemics caused a mortality rate as high as 95%.

One of the early Spanish explorers (Hernando de Soto) walked through land that is now Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida, and he discovered huge thriving civilizations of farmers, with cities as big as any of the capitals in Europe. However, the de Soto expedition brought along live pigs to use as food, and Mann speculates that these animals carried diseases that the natives had no resistance too. De Soto was the only one to see these great civilizations, because they had perished by the time 17th century explorers ventured into those lands.

There is a lot of detail in this book about the Inca and the Aztec, but also about the civilizations that preceded them. Mann gives a lot of history about ancient cultures that I had never even heard of. The point is that the Americas supported a much larger population (perhaps there were 100 million natives at the time of Columbus - greater than the total population of Europe!) and more advanced civilizations that we were taught in the traditional grade-school history classes. North America was not an empty desolate wilderness, but in fact a carefully maintained environment for hunting and farming. It is fascinating to read about the tribes of New England that were present just before the pilgrims arrived. The Mayflower people were woefully ill prepared for the harsh American climate, one winter they had to survive eating stocks of corn that had been stored in a Native American village (the original inhabitants of the village were mostly dead from disease).

One of the most interesting arguments Mann puts forth is the idea that the Amazon rain forest and much of North America were not wild forests, but were actually environments shaped by their inhabitants. There are a couple of photographs in the book that show regular structures in the Amazon basin in land that had recently been cleared of jungle. For centuries, the Amazon has concealed evidence of these ruins. In the Great Plains, the fires were used to burn landscape to make it ideal for farming, while in the forested northeast, the natives used fire and pruning to create lands better suited for raising nut trees and the deer that they hunted.

This is a fascinating book. Many of the ideas are disputed, such as the total number of natives who perished in the plagues. But even if only half the ideas prove to be right, the picture this book paints is a radically different America than the pristine wilderness we were taught existed in 1492. Great book!