1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influe...

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Title:1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Author:Charles C. Mann
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Edition Language:English

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus Reviews

  • Jason Koivu

    This was like a coloring book of pre-Pilgrim North America for me in that it filled in a lot of unanswered questions and brilliantly illuminated some areas of my knowledge that were mere outlines. It stays within the lines and makes my early attempts at coloring in the past look like spidery, seizure-induced scrawlings.

    Being originally from New England, I'm well aware that there were inhabitants here long before the Europeans arrived. Early on in school we were inundated with stories of Samoset

    This was like a coloring book of pre-Pilgrim North America for me in that it filled in a lot of unanswered questions and brilliantly illuminated some areas of my knowledge that were mere outlines. It stays within the lines and makes my early attempts at coloring in the past look like spidery, seizure-induced scrawlings.

    Being originally from New England, I'm well aware that there were inhabitants here long before the Europeans arrived. Early on in school we were inundated with stories of Samoset and Squanto, the first Native Americans to make contact with the Plymouth Colony pilgrims, and how in 1621 they strolled into the transplanted Englishmen's village and a big party broke out, thus began the tradition of Thanksgiving. I was (mis)taught in a Massachusetts classroom where heritage and history are king, so much was made of this. We were led to believe the story by elementary schoolteachers who probably wholeheartedly believed it themselves. What about the Virginia Colony of 1607 and their contact with the native inhabitants? It failed, so sweep it under the rug. Something tells me this version of America's founding by Europeans was not the one being taught in Virginia at the time...

    Never was explained how the two natives could speak English (from Englishmen fishing off of the Maine coast and, in Squanto's case, from abduction and internment for seven years in England) or anything that happened in the Americas prior to the pilgrims landing. Oh sure there was talk of Incas and Mayans and their all important maize. But the extent, the sheer size of the native tribes, clans, and cosmopolitan societies of the Americas, north and south, and how Europe brought it all down upon their heads, none of this was discussed. Why? Because even during the late 1970s and early 80s when the movement to turn the Native Americans into mystical caretakers of Mother Earth, there was still a prejudicial sense of 'white is right' prevalent, at least in the neighborhood I grew up in. The other reason is a plain lack of knowledge. My simple teachers simply did not know. They can't wholly be blamed. The information wasn't readily available or flat-out

    available. School books were traditional and outdated. The grey-area material was swept under the rug. Now there is less grey-area material - advances in technology and archaeological practices have greatly advanced our knowledge of the past in just a few short decades - but there's still plenty of unknown patches of time in the western hemisphere. In

    Mann does not shy away from them.

    Having said that, it should be noted that this is not just about North America. No, in fact more time is spent on everything below it. Through discovered texts and deciphered inscriptions there's just more known about Mesoamerica than the other areas, so yes, there are pages upon pages about those Incas and Mayans.

    In general what I love about

    is that it doesn't take the Indians' side or the Europeans'. It doesn't try to cast a glowing angelic light upon the native inhabitants to transform them into woodland spirits whose only concern was the preservation of the trees and the birds, etc blah blah blah (Earth Day is quaint and misguided, but I digress...), nor does Mann attempt to attack or defend the actions of the Europeans. All is more of a statement of fact or, if lacking concrete evidence, a statement of possibility based on sound theory.

    Sure, this distills oceans of scholarly study down to a more manageable duck pond, but it never tries to pretend it is doing otherwise. Mann is no pretender to vaunted erudition. He's a journalist who's done some research. He's a guy who realized his own grade school education was lacking, and when he found out the moldy stuff he was taught way back when was still being taught to his son he decided to do something about it. I'm glad for it.

  • Rick Riordan

    My favorite recent history book, Mann surveys the breadth and complexity of indigenous cultures in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. Some of this research was familiar to me. When I taught American history in the 2000s, I would start with such 'snapshots' of Cahokia, the Olmecs, the Serpent Mound, the Maya, the great trade networks that connected the continent. But even that information was hard to find. Good luck finding even a mention of it in the school textbooks. Despite having so

    My favorite recent history book, Mann surveys the breadth and complexity of indigenous cultures in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. Some of this research was familiar to me. When I taught American history in the 2000s, I would start with such 'snapshots' of Cahokia, the Olmecs, the Serpent Mound, the Maya, the great trade networks that connected the continent. But even that information was hard to find. Good luck finding even a mention of it in the school textbooks. Despite having some knowledge, I was blown away, again, by how populated and cultivated the American landscape was before the cataclysmic arrival of Europeans and their diseases. This book blows up many stubborn, out-dated theories like the singular Bering land-bridge migration, the idea that the land was 'mostly empty' when Europeans arrived, and the idea that most indigenous peoples were 'simple' hunter gatherers. It also gives us a good look at just how stubborn and resistant traditional Euro-American scholarship has been to accepting any new information that didn't fit established theories about the indigenous peoples. None of this will comes as a surprise to indigenous readers themselves, I'm sure, but for me, it was a refreshing, amazing read. I knew nothing about the vast, sophisticated terraforming societies of sub-Amazonian South America, or the pre-Incan empires, or the way that hunter-gatherer people intentionally crafted the landscape to better serve their needs. Mann gave me a tantalizing glimpse into a complex, beautiful pre-Columbian world.

  • Trevor

    You know – in fourteen-hundred-and-ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. So, 1491 was a particularly interesting year for the inhabitants of the Americas. This is a remarkably similar story to that told in Dark Emu. It is almost as if everything I’ve ever known about pre-European settlement in Australia and the Americas has been, well, utter rubbish. Which is more than a little annoying.

    What is very interesting here is that we seem to have grossly under-estimated both the population of the

    You know – in fourteen-hundred-and-ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. So, 1491 was a particularly interesting year for the inhabitants of the Americas. This is a remarkably similar story to that told in Dark Emu. It is almost as if everything I’ve ever known about pre-European settlement in Australia and the Americas has been, well, utter rubbish. Which is more than a little annoying.

    What is very interesting here is that we seem to have grossly under-estimated both the population of the Americas prior to European arrival and also the extent of farming – including farming in the Amazon basin, a particularly interesting part of this book. The author suggests that the local Indian populations in the Amazon effectively created the forest to meet human needs and that this was then able to support a much larger population than we would otherwise have estimated and one much more ‘advanced’ than we assume too.

    All of this has consequences and implications, of course, because we could and should learn a lot from peoples who have farmed the land for thousands of years before we arrived and who did so in ways that appear to have been much more sustainable than anything we have achieved since.

    This book covers far too much – in fact, so much so that after a while my head was almost spinning. We travel across both continents. Sometimes there is so much detail involving the pre-European arrival political struggles and murders that it pays to remember that if the Indians had invaded the UK at around this same time they’d have come just after the War of the Roses. You know, what I’m saying is that Europe was in no position to criticise other countries and their monarchies for their internecine murders and battles.

    The thing that has shifted how I understand this history involves a kind of key provided by this book to understanding what happened. Basically Europeans were filthy since we lived with lots of animals and so we brought horrible, horrible diseases to the Americas. The local populations had no defence against such diseases and also had a remarkably narrow gene pool (are pools narrow? Maybe it was a shallow pool.) Either way, it seems that up to 95% of the local populations were killed by diseases like small pox. We can hardly imagine what that would mean. The debate still rages about whether the Europeans intentionally spread these diseases (although, another book I have read on this said that James the First referred to small pox as a gift from God – so, it wasn’t as if we were particularly upset about the inferno that we allowed to sweep before us as we arrived in the New World. What is clear is that not only did the population collapse, entire civilisations were brought to their knees. And as we arrived we often assumed that what we found was what had been, with us completely unaware we were witnessing societies suffering under dire stress. The author makes it very clear that what we were seeing was a grossly distorted vision of what had previously existed. I’ve never fully understood the implications of this.

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that some disease came to Melbourne, where I live, a city of about 5 million people, and it wiped out 95% of everyone. Obviously, all of the normal things you might expect to be going on in a city would come to a screaming halt. You would be unlikely to be able to catch a tram, for instance, or buy milk at the local supermarket if 19 in every 20 people suddenly stopped living. And the people left would be without nearly everyone they have known and loved – so, not particularly happy, if you know what I mean. But that would only be the beginning of the problems. Let’s say none of the animals died in this catastrophe. The estimate is that 62% of households in Melbourne have pets, and there are 20 dogs per 100 people, which would mean all of a sudden there would be 20 dogs for every five people. If their owners are dead, then presumably many of these dogs would be pretty hungry and some of them would be out and about looking for food, probably in packs. If you arrived a year or so after the catastrophe, Melbourne would look like a pretty frightening place with lots of hungry and presumably angry dogs walking the streets. You might wonder what the hell was the matter with these people that they had so many damn dogs and didn’t even bother to look after them.

    This is effectively what is suggested to have happened with bison. That is, that the removal of humans from farm lands across the continent provided bison with an ideal situation to go through a population explosion. And this then left the Europeans who arrived assuming the Indians spent all of their time hunting bison without ever seeming to diminish the population of them, whereas the bison were actually just taking advantage of the Indian farms that were now no longer farms due to the Indians having died off due to disease.

    There is a bit of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods where he talks of the extinction of various types of birds that had swarmed in such profusion when Europeans arrived that the Europeans basically went nuts killing and eating them. This is presented as proof of European disregard for nature – something that is self-evidently true, by the way. But in this case the birds were also an oddity. Because the Indian farmers had died, the corn harvests were left in the fields, the amount of food available for these birds exploded and with that so too did their populations. What Europeans witnessed and considered normal were in fact a consequence of removing humans from what had been a human-made landscape. And once you do that, other animals take the opportunity to flourish.

    This book has shifted how I understand the pre-European Americas – if you are from the Americas, you should read this, not only because it is a fascinating read, but also because it will serve as a useful reminder of a cultural heritage you still have responsibilities for. Just as we Australians can never be reconciled with the land until we help to heal the wound we have made by our terrible and tragic history, so too the Americas have a debt that needs to be repayed.

  • Douglas Hunter

    As someone who writes professionally in this area (unabashed plug: watch for God's Mercies, Doubleday Canada, in October 07) I have high praise for this title, a long-overdue assessment of native culture and civilization before (and at) contact with Europeans. I'm still reading it, but I've been impressed so far.[I've now finished, see below.] Anyone who enjoyed it should also consider Elaine Dewar's Bones, which explores the archaeological controversy of how long people have been in the New Wor

    As someone who writes professionally in this area (unabashed plug: watch for God's Mercies, Doubleday Canada, in October 07) I have high praise for this title, a long-overdue assessment of native culture and civilization before (and at) contact with Europeans. I'm still reading it, but I've been impressed so far.[I've now finished, see below.] Anyone who enjoyed it should also consider Elaine Dewar's Bones, which explores the archaeological controversy of how long people have been in the New World. (She wholeheartedly supports the "a really, really long time" camp.)

    My only critique of 1491, and it is minor, is that the author I feel overstates the case that Europeans (mainly English) did not enjoy a military superiority over the natives, that their powder weapons were ineffective. This is a rather generous reading of native military capability. The English army did away with the longbow in 1598, and for all their problems, powder weapons were a clear advantage. Frenchman Samuel de Champlain used just three harquebus to devastating effect against the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) in 1609, and in his trade and colonization monopoly, secured in 1612 under the Prince de Condé, the terms specifically forbid anyone to trade powder weapons with the natives, under penalty of a 10,000 livre fine and corporal punishment. One of the key factors in European inability not to immediately conquer or eradicate native populations by force was the sheer lack of firepower. (They also needed them as trade partners.) These commercial ventures (English and French in particular) didn't have the full might of their states behind them in the early contact period. Had England or France made up their mind to truly "conquer" these shores and their peoples, they would have marched through them much like de Soto did in the southeastern US in the mid 16th century, for good or for ill (pretty well for ill). But an idea the author does well to advance is the fact that coastal nations or tribes that made contact with the newcomers often came to decide that they should secure a strategic advantage and enlist the newcomers' aid in fighting their own enemies. It was a complicated time, and 1491 is a worthy overview.

    Having now finished, I'll still recommend it. For those interested in precontact cultures north of 49 (as in half of North America) the lack of material about French Canada is a little disappointing. There's nothing about the much-debated vanishing of the Iroquoian-speaking residents of the St. Lawrence (at Hochelaga and Stadacona) who were there in large numbers in palisade villages when Cartier first visited in the 1530s, but had vanished utterly by the time Champlain showed up in 1603. But that's nitpicky, considering the enormous scope of this work.

  • Brendan

    The survey of current thinking on the population of the americas via that Beringia land bridge and the subsequent summary of the evolutions of early american society is interesting.

    But the repeated comparisons between american society and eurasian society are really fraught and often belabored. The comparisons between the two hemisphere's agriculture and domesticable animals are fine, but the assertion that Aztec (apparently it's more politically correct to call them Mexica) philosophy was as ri

    The survey of current thinking on the population of the americas via that Beringia land bridge and the subsequent summary of the evolutions of early american society is interesting.

    But the repeated comparisons between american society and eurasian society are really fraught and often belabored. The comparisons between the two hemisphere's agriculture and domesticable animals are fine, but the assertion that Aztec (apparently it's more politically correct to call them Mexica) philosophy was as rich as medieval europe's is ludicrous, especially given that such a huge volume of Aztec codices have been preserved and deciphered. The Aztecs did some respectable philosophical work, but Mann's exaggerations aside, they didn't come close to rivaling the work done in ancient Greece, to say nothing of the subsequent 2,000 years of philosophy in Europe (with a nod towards Middle Eastern contributions as well) that took place between the death of Aristotle and the discovery of the new world. Today, it may be possible to take a mesoamerican philosophy course in some university departments, but there are very few (if any) lasting or novel contributions to the the broader discipline of philosophy to be found in Aztec (or Mayan, or Incan) philosophy. There's no shame in that: it has been said that all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. So why feel the need to exaggerate and mislead readers by making politically correct assertions that have no basis in reality?

    Also, the distinction the author draws between guilt and responsibility (i.e. 'we' should not feel guilty that Cortes introduced smallpox and wiped out 95% of american indians, but 'we' have some responsibility for this) is way too underdeveloped to be taken seriously. I don't necessarily think that the discussion is even necessary, but it is not an uncommon discussion in US politics, and Mann consciously decides to wade into these waters. First, he never defines 'we,' though it seems he means whites of european descent residing in the new world (and maybe Europeans back in Europe who benefitted from mercantilism/colonialism? It's not clear). And then he never explains how responsibility can be justly divided among descendants; how someone of, say, direct Cortez lineage might have a different level of 'responsibility' than a descendant of an Irish family with no seafaring anscestors and no pedigree in the New World until the late 19th century. And if they have the same 'responsibility,' then does a modern day Chinese or Indian immigrant to the new world also have some responsibility? All unclear, and the absence of even any contemplation of these points leaves the book's attempts at constructing a morality of European/American Indian interaction disappointingly hollow. Mann decided the topic was worthy enough to merit some discussion; it is unfortunate he failed to do the topic any justice.

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