242 of 253 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New Possibilites for Pre-Columbian Life in the Americas
Mann gives the reader a comprehensive overview of the new theories concerning native American societies before the colonial period. The story is intriguing, and the fascinating narrative will hold the reader's complete attention. The assertions made are too numerous and complex to go into in any detail here, but in brief: we are told that the Western Hemisphere was...
Published on October 30, 2005 by From the Oregon Country
216 of 262 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Eagerly anticipated, disappointed in the end
(...)which cited its description of the development of maize as one of the great feats of genetic manipulation. Mann's main purpose in writing 1491 is the advancement of two theories: (a) that the Americas were far more thickly populated than popularly supposed and (b) that the Indian cultures were fairly sophisticated. After reading the book, I am not convinced that...
Published on October 4, 2005 by Richard E. Berger
Most Helpful First | Newest First
242 of 253 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New Possibilites for Pre-Columbian Life in the Americas,
Mann gives the reader a comprehensive overview of the new theories concerning native American societies before the colonial period. The story is intriguing, and the fascinating narrative will hold the reader's complete attention. The assertions made are too numerous and complex to go into in any detail here, but in brief: we are told that the Western Hemisphere was actually much more populous than anyone had imagined previously. Most of the inhabitants were wiped out by plagues brought by the Europeans. Far from being either brutal and child-like, or "noble savages", the native Americans had established sophisticated societies which served large and growing populations, and which had great impact on their natural environments. No small Indian tribes living in a vast, untamed wilderness! To the contrary, fire was used repeatedly to burn off weeds and undergrowth, extensive mounds and other structures were raised to provide crop land and ponds for fish breeding, and cultivation was widespread. Indeed, Mann asserts that the Amazon, far from being the quintessential wilderness most regard it as, is actually a garden gone wild!
The tale is breathtaking in its scope. But is it true? The author of 1491 acknowledges that the new theories are controversial. For example: everyone agrees the Europeans brought diseases which wiped out large numbers of Indians. But not all agree that the original population was anywhere near the levels claimed. And many researchers contend that structures claimed to be of human origin, such as the Beni causeways in Bolivia, are actually of natural origin. This reader withholds judgement until a lot more evidence is forthcoming. However, everyone interested in history owes it to themselves to read this spellbinding story of an America that just might have been, and then watch as it is either confirmed or refuted by continuing, widely based research.
508 of 555 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent update on the current academic understanding of pre-Columbian America,
Although recent years have yielded significant progress in understanding how "Indians" lived throughout the Americas before 1492 and Columbus, only isolated bits of the story have reached the popular press. Far too many people still hold to one of two myths of the Indians, or have little conception at all of pre-Columbian America.
The first popular myth is that the Indians were a bunch of primitive savages just keeping the land warm until superior Europeans showed up. It's sad to read reviews here that assert that because Indians used stone tools they were therefore "stone age", with the implication that their culture was no further advanced than that early period.
The second myth makes the Indians into proto-flower-children, naively and simply in tune with their environment.
Both myths are based on stereotyping and are condescending to the pre-Colombians. How could people spread over two continents and many millennia be briefly summarized? They can't be! The Americas saw the development of a broad range of cultures, just like every other inhabited area of the world. Some cultures overstressed their environment and soon collapsed. Others created stable conditions under which they could survive for generations. (Which is not the same as saying they didn't impact nature.) But even the latter could be brought down by climate change, political instability, disease (especially European), or contact with outsiders (Indian or European).
Great cities arose in mesoamerica and the Andes, and also in other areas when the right conditions prevailed. And sophisticated cultures existed even where city building wasn't favored.
This book takes the reader through a vibrant overview of centuries of Indian culture both before and shortly after Columbus landed. Much of the narrative is based on work-in-progress by archaeologists and historians, and will certainly become dated with time, but it is an important update to the common, current understanding of the subject.
For those not enthralled by one of the myths I mention above, most Americans recall our history along the lines of Scene 1: The Pilgrims land and encounter Indians who teach them how to grow corn; they then have a big Thanksgiving party together. Scene 2: Americans moving inland encounter savage Indians who need to be exterminated or moved to reservations to make the continent safe for manifest destiny. Scene 3: The few remaining Indians are victims of brutal European suppression, and we need to buy jewelry and pottery from them to make ourselves feel better about the situation.
This book is a welcome update to our thinking about the Americas before Columbus. It's also one of the best books I've read in long time, and I highly recommend it.
153 of 171 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Intriguing New Look,
Charles C. Mann has taken much of what we thought we knew about the Native Americans and their world and thrown it out the window. In a pleasantly informal yet highly professional style, Mann recounts tales of his own studies and travels, as well as those of many archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists past and present throughout the Americas.
If your knowledge of the Native Americans begins and ends with what you learned in school years ago, or with the stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood, you are in for quite a shock. To begin with, the Native Americans have been "natives" here for far longer than any one suspected. Next, their cultures were heterogeneous and quite advanced, in many ways far outdoing their counterparts in Europe. And in what may be the most controversial sections, Mann maintains that the Native Americans were neither primitive savages who left no mark on their world, nor dreamy proto-environmentalists who lived as one with nature, but rather people who throughly altered and shaped their landscapes.
This is not a book which will please many with an agenda on either the pro-development or pro-environment side, but it will be found invaluable by those who seek a better understanding of the "New World" before the Europeans "discovered" it.
67 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Real Civilized Old World,
This is a highly readable and informative compendium of current knowledge on the Americas prior to Columbian contact. Charles Mann has gathered modern research into an engaging narrative that offers updates on old theories, bold new theories that often contradict the old ones, and a fair amount of useful speculation on what was really happening in the ancient Americas. The speculative parts of this book will turn off serious historians (plus those with political, academic, or ethnic agendas, as can be seen in some of the more condescending reviews here), but the speculation offers plenty of food for thought, and Mann has mostly just channeled the exploratory ideas of his sources. In any case, such explorations are grounded in at least partially corroborated findings by modern archeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and experts in other fields, and Mann has made extensive use of legitimate sources both old and new. In fact, his bibliography will provide the enthusiast with reading material for years to come.
In addition to increasing the reader's knowledge of little-covered Native American societies such as the Cahokians and several pre-Inka South American kingdoms, the main running contention in this book is not necessarily historical but ecological. There is growing evidence that Indians throughout the hemisphere did not live in a timeless and static communion with nature, which is a common "green" stereotype. Instead, the majority of native populations actively engineered their landscapes and altered their local ecologies to better suit human needs, though this usually (but not always) resulted in long-term mutual benefits for nature and man, rather than the dead-end destruction resulting from Western methods. And in general, large and structured city states seem to have been remarkably common, even in the previously little-appreciated Amazon basin (which itself is not as "pristine" or "untrammeled" as modern hype would have you believe). And finally, Mann presents the latest evidence showing that Native American populations were once several orders of magnitude higher than those found by European explorers and colonists, with horrendous percentages being wiped out by Western diseases just a few years before. While this book is not a groundbreaking research effort in its own right, Mann has compiled a great amount of knowledge that will go a long way toward shaping your views of how civilized the "old" world really was. [~doomsdayer520~]
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mann with a Mission,
Charles Mann's book - with the subtitle of "New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" - is not really about the year 1491. It's really about everything, or almost everything, that created the world that Columbus and the other explorers, conquistadores, missionaries, and fortune-seekers encountered when Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere.
The author has a mission: to let us non-experts in on the fact that many of the assumptions and theories dealing with the pre-Columbian Americas are being challenged, and in many cases overturned, in every relevant discipline. His sympathies are clearly with the overturners and, for the most part, he won over this reader's sympathies as well.
If the book were to be ordered chronologically (and it most certainly isn't; see below), it would start with Mann's review of the challenge to the long-held assumption that the first Americans all came by way of Beringia and traveled down the relatively short-lived ice-free corridor around 10,000 years ago. Other possible routes at other, perhaps earlier, possible times are now being suggested by some researchers. Mann spends more time putting forward the contemporary counter-arguments to the equally long-held belief that the early migration quickly resulted in an "overkill" of large mammals, leaving North America bereft of such species.
What Mann does treat in detail early in the book is the argument over the size of the pre-Columbian population. In the 1930's, a figure of 8.4 million was generally accepted. Today, some researchers believe that the number was closer to 100 million. As Mann says, that would mean that when Columbus set sail more people lived in the Americas than in Europe. That'll make you sit up straight and pay attention.
Mann takes up many other contentious issues and in doing so alerts us to many little-known facts (and factoids) about the pre-Columbian Indians and their cultures. His review of the history of maize - perhaps the earliest example of genetically engineered foods - is one of the most fascinating examples. His treatment of the rapid spread of smallpox is another. Only space constraints keep me from providing a much longer list of such examples.
And in fact that story of maize is emblematic of what I took to be the main lesson of Mann's book: pre-Columbian Indians were shapers of their environment in massive, comprehensive ways and in almost every watershed, mountain range, and plain of the hemisphere. Such was the magnitude of this environmental engineering, it seems, that the images of the pre-Columbian world that we grew up and that were promulgated by both textbooks and mass media were totally at variance with reality.
I find two interconnected faults with the book, one major, one not so. The major one is the sense of randomness in the way Mann has organized his material. Themes come, go, and reappear. The short history of the Inca (Mann insists on "Inka") is presented; then later we hear of the peoples who preceded and were conquered by them. The section on the population debate is followed by one entitled "Frequently Asked Questions", a chapter that seems out of place and premature. Other examples abound. This is admittedly a book of themes rather than strict narrative, but Mann is too good at narrative to have not put more effort into organizing those narratives better within his major themes. I was left feeling totally confused about some aspects of the book and the peoples whose stories it tells.
My minor objection, but one which contributes to the confusion, is Mann's predilection for telling us a story with a straight-face and then admitting that it's all wrong. He spends, for example, almost 6 pages recounting the history and conquest of the Inca, only to start the next section with "I have just pulled a fast one." A fascinating discussion of "Why did the Inka lose" follows. It would have been even more fascinating without the nagging suspicion that we might still be being had. He duplicates this technique elsewhere in the book.
But I haven't stopped talking about the book and its many absorbing and challenging themes in the month since I finished it. It's boldly provocative and makes you want to keep reading about how the history of the hemisphere is being rewritten.
The maps are plentiful (16), clear, and informative. More obvious credit should be given to the map-maker. The photographs (36 of them) are also helpful.
74 of 86 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow!,
If you thought, as I did, that the Americas prior to Columbus were a couple of barren continents occupied by a sparce population of savages, you are in for a mindblowing surprise in this wonderful new book. There may have been 100 million people living in the Americas in 1491, perhaps more than in Europe. There were bigger cities, some with running water and botanical gardens, larger than any in Europe. Did you know the Inkas invented the salad bar? Okay, that's a joke, but the other stuff is true and a zillion other amazing things. Other books and articles on preColumbian America have disappointed me with their fantasy: Chinese in Rhode Island, King Arthur in Kentucky, aliens in Peru, etc. But this is solidly researched by an award-winning science writer, with endorsements from some heavyweight historians--Richard Rhodes, Tom Powers, Joseph Ellis, and others. There are clear and helpful maps, copious and readable footnotes, and a H-U-G-E bibliography for those of us who teach or just want to know more. On a personal note, Mann explains why he uses the term "Indian" rather than "native American" or more politically correct terms. The Chippewas (aka Ojibwa) in my family always called themselves Indians, so this makes me realize Mann really immersed himself in the subject. This is an important, fascinating, readable, and handsome book
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Indian civilizations much more complex than we thought.,
This review is from: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Paperback)
1491 is part science text, part history book. Charles C. Mann's main premise is that the Americas in 1491 were a much different place than our history books say they were.
Mann's first line of attack is the "empty America" syndrome. He claims there were as many people living in North America as there were in Europe, prior to decimation by smallpox and other European diseases. In the process he also belittles the "pristine America" argument. Prior to the smallpox pandemic, Indians burned the underbrush of our forests; the result was more of a parkland than a wild Garden of Eden. The forest stretching from the coast to the Mississippi came afterward, when the Indian caretakers had been depleted.
Most impressive for me was Mann's analysis of Indian technology. For instance, maize was not an indigenous plant. It was genetically engineered from a mountain grass called teosinte. The Amazonian Indians of South America also managed to invent their own soil, "terra preta," a sort of mixture of pottery shards and charcoal. The South American Indians even experimented in social engineering. Inca warriors would infiltrate villages, "convince" their rulers that accepting Inca rule would be beneficial to their people, then gradually take over. Once in control, they would move some of the subjugated population to others villages where they were required to learn the Inca language. The Incas even managed to "eradicate hunger" in an empire larger than that conquered by Alexander the Great.
Mann hopscotches back and forth between such diverse cultures as Triple Alliance (Aztecs) in Central America to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in Canada and New England. Each has a surprise in store for the reader. For instance, it's not true that the Aztecs never invented the wheel. Children's toys have been unearthed with definite wheels. Mann theorizes that because of the mountainous and wet environment the Aztecs scorned the invention. Then he compares them to Europe, where our supposedly superior civilization never did invent the plow; it had to be imported from China.
Another criticism of Native American culture is that they had no system of writing. Mann counters this misconception with the Inca's "khipu," sort of three-dimensional stringed knots, which were felt and read. Scientists are still trying to decipher them. Mixtec Indians also left behind "codices," deerskin or bark books whose painted pages looked rather like murals.
Native America civilizations also appear to be much older than the history books say. The Clovis culture, for instance, has been carbon-dated to between 13,500 and 12,900 years ago and archaeologist Alex D. Krieger lists fifty sites said to be older yet. Some scientists maintain that paleo-Indians "walked or paddled" to Peru fifteen thousand years ago.
43 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An essential book on American history,
I was excited about this book for a while, yet, particularly after disappointment with 1421's overblown claims, I was skeptical that its initial claims would be supported by hard evidence. Instead, I found that Mann has clearly done his homework to produce a brilliant book describing the lost chapters of American history.
Mann's (and the researchers he cites) basic argument is clear: conventional history on American Indians is stale, often relying on faulty, static, or even blatantly racist research. These societies weren't waiting in stasis for Columbus - they rose and fell, much like European societies, a fact many researchers failed to realize. The introduction is illustrative, in which Mann describes an Indian society that is currently poor and nomadic, although it built large earth mounds and had a successful civilization before 1491.
I also like the fact that Mann presents the conventional historical argument before he introduces the more modern argument. He also does a good job explaining why past researchers may have been mistaken. For example, many glossed over the accounts of early explorers, even though they may have actually been recording what they saw (surely not that surprising when you think about it, but a revolution in the field nonetheless).
The only faults I found in the book were relatively small. First, it would have been nice to have a glossary. Second, while the book follows a well-developed structure, I wanted more. One gets the feeling that Mann only scratches the surface, and he could have easily written another 100 pages while keeping the reader entertained. On the other hand, this book already took so much work that this may be a lot to ask. I only hope Mann produces more books on this subject.
216 of 262 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Eagerly anticipated, disappointed in the end,
(...)which cited its description of the development of maize as one of the great feats of genetic manipulation. Mann's main purpose in writing 1491 is the advancement of two theories: (a) that the Americas were far more thickly populated than popularly supposed and (b) that the Indian cultures were fairly sophisticated. After reading the book, I am not convinced that either theory is true, simply because I don't think Mann has provided sufficient evidence to make his case.
Mann relies on too many anecdotal accounts and has a habit of subtly shifting his argument from the facts (as much as they are known) to speculation. I think the emphasis on a select few scientists and the personal dimensions of their disputes is distracting. I enjoyed his writing at first but soon began to tire of it - his metaphorical style struck me as quirky and apt early in the book, but became annoying.
I thought the book was not well organized. He jumps from region to region, culture to culture and time period to time period. I found it difficult to make an overall assessment of his argument and that left me unpersuaded.
This book did not convince me that the Indians were quite as advanced as Mann thinks they were, but it did open my eyes to a world of which I was had previously been ignorant. I would like to read more about the Indian cultures, particularly of North America.
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-Provoking,
Charles C. Mann's book manages to convey an impressive breadth of theories and ideas in a fairly short volume- the book itself is only 336 pages, it's the notes and appendices that take it well over 400 pages. In those pages, however, Mann packs in so many new (to me, at least) ideas and interpretations of American history that are awe-inspiring at best, and food for thought, at least.
In his book, Mann presents the argument that the Americas were highly populated by Indians before Europeans came (they were then subsequently killed off in alarming amounts by disease). Far from being the tree-huggers they're made out to be, Indians had a drastic and important effect on the environment around them. He presents evidence of complex agricultural techniques, from forest fires to "genetic engineering" of crops and even, amazingly, proof of lengthy and highly successful farming techniques in the Amazon rain forest. He paints a vivid picture of Inka and Mayan societies, and then delivers evidence that those were not the first advanced civilizations in the Americas, but that they were the culmination of thousands of years of growth and learning.
He states that the environment before Europeans arrived was systematically influenced by the natives, and that when they were killed off by disease, it created a whole =new= environment that, by the time colonists came (1600s onwards), they saw a drastically different country than had existed only a short time before. He cites the well-known story of the passenger pigeon as an example, giving it a twist, and then even hints at a precursor to democracy and the American Constitution in the Haudenosaunee culture.
The most potent point, in my opinion, that Mann delivers is given early in the story. He says, "Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind ... The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!" And then Mann uses the rest of the book to make a case for just how MUCH was lost when the Indians died out- their agricultural skills, their knowledge, their ideas and their cultures. It's a compelling account, well-presented, and, in my view, thoroughly successful.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (Paperback - October 10, 2006)