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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus Paperback – October 10, 2006
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1491 is not so much the story of a year, as of what that year stands for: the long-debated (and often-dismissed) question of what human civilization in the Americas was like before the Europeans crashed the party. The history books most Americans were (and still are) raised on describe the continents before Columbus as a vast, underused territory, sparsely populated by primitives whose cultures would inevitably bow before the advanced technologies of the Europeans. For decades, though, among the archaeologists, anthropologists, paleolinguists, and others whose discoveries Charles C. Mann brings together in 1491, different stories have been emerging. Among the revelations: the first Americans may not have come over the Bering land bridge around 12,000 B.C. but by boat along the Pacific coast 10 or even 20 thousand years earlier; the Americas were a far more urban, more populated, and more technologically advanced region than generally assumed; and the Indians, rather than living in static harmony with nature, radically engineered the landscape across the continents, to the point that even "timeless" natural features like the Amazon rainforest can be seen as products of human intervention.
Mann is well aware that much of the history he relates is necessarily speculative, the product of pot-shard interpretation and precise scientific measurements that often end up being radically revised in later decades. But the most compelling of his eye-opening revisionist stories are among the best-founded: the stories of early American-European contact. To many of those who were there, the earliest encounters felt more like a meeting of equals than one of natural domination. And those who came later and found an emptied landscape that seemed ripe for the taking, Mann argues convincingly, encountered not the natural and unchanging state of the native American, but the evidence of a sudden calamity: the ravages of what was likely the greatest epidemic in human history, the smallpox and other diseases introduced inadvertently by Europeans to a population without immunity, which swept through the Americas faster than the explorers who brought it, and left behind for their discovery a land that held only a shadow of the thriving cultures that it had sustained for centuries before. --Tom Nissley
A 1491 Timeline
|Europe and Asia||Dates||The Americas|
|25000-35000 B.C.||Time of paleo-Indian migration to Americas from Siberia, according to genetic evidence. Groups likely traveled across the Pacific in boats.|
|Wheat and barley grown from wild ancestors in Sumer.||6000|
|5000||In what many scientists regard as humankind's first and greatest feat of genetic engineering, Indians in southern Mexico systematically breed maize (corn) from dissimilar ancestor species.|
|First cities established in Sumer.||4000|
|3000||The Americas' first urban complex, in coastal Peru, of at least 30 closely packed cities, each centered around large pyramid-like structures|
|Great Pyramid at Giza||2650|
|32||First clear evidence of Olmec use of zero--an invention, widely described as the most important mathematical discovery ever made, which did not occur in Eurasia until about 600 A.D., in India (zero was not introduced to Europe until the 1200s and not widely used until the 1700s)|
|800-840 A.D.||Sudden collapse of most central Maya cities in the face of severe drought and lengthy war|
|Vikings briefly establish first European settlements in North America.||1000|| |
|Black Death devastates Europe.||1347-1351|
|1398||Birth of Tlacaélel, the brilliant Mexican strategist behind the Triple Alliance (also known as the Aztec empire), which within decades controls central Mexico, then the most densely settled place on Earth.|
|The Encounter: Columbus sails from Europe to the Caribbean.||1492||The Encounter: Columbus sails from Europe to the Caribbean.|
|Syphilis apparently brought to Europe by Columbus's returning crew.||1493|
|Ferdinand Magellan departs from Spain on around-the-world voyage.||1519|| |
|1525-1533||The smallpox epidemic sweeps into Peru, killing as much as half the population of the Inka empire and opening the door to conquest by Spanish forces led by Pizarro.|
|1617||Huge areas of New England nearly depopulated by epidemic brought by shipwrecked French sailors.|
|English Pilgrims arrive at Patuxet, an Indian village emptied by disease, and survive on stored Indian food, renaming the village Plymouth.||1620|
|*Courtesy Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Collinsville, Ill., painting by Michael Hampshire. **Courtesy Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, N.M. (Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, 1547-77).|
From Publishers Weekly
This production is—as most nonfiction audios ought to be—a "reading" as distinct from a "performance." Johnson renders this thoroughly researched, well-written history of early North and South American Indian populations in a strong, clear voice, with excellent intonation. His diction is almost too perfect—one occasionally focuses on pronunciation rather than content. Most of the book is written in narrative form that sweeps listeners through an exciting rethinking of all we ever learned about when so-called Indians first inhabited the American continents and how they may have come here, about their numbers, religions, cultures, inventions, social structures and their relations to European invaders and settlers. When Mann relates the internecine battles among schools of anthropologists and archeologists, however, the listener might wish he had the book in hand for clarity. It might be wise from the start to make a list of the numerous Indian and European individuals and groupings. This audiobook is well worth the trouble.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Unlike 1493, which I thought was unfocused, 1491 stays on message despite the enormous amount of detail crammed into this volume. For those of us who once viewed the "New World" as a virtually uninhabited Eden at the time of Columbus's arrival, think again. Mann refutes this mistaken idea in 500 pages of excruciating, well-documented detail. In its place the author serves up a picture of lost civilizations that were highly evolved for their time even in comparison with Europe and Asia. Why misconceptions about the New World developed and why these civilizations disappeared are questions that Mann addresses in both 1491 and 1493. These books together leave us to ponder the fate of these civilizations and what might have been had conditions been different.
Several visitors at Cahokia, and a few of my friends, recommended that I read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, written in 2005, by Charles C. Mann.
Mr. Mann relies heavily on the work of Dr William I. Woods, a geography professor at University of Kansas. I have found a book Envisioning Cahokia: a Landscape Perspective, co-authored by Dr. Woods. Not an easy read, but I am currently tackling it to see if I can learn more.
I have recently finished 1491 (Vintage Books, second edition, July 2011) and I have a few observations. Some of the things the author states as "facts" about Cahokia are speculation. Some of the things he says are clearly incorrect.
This makes me question the rest of the book.
The best known landmark at Cahokia is Monks Mound. Standing 100 feet high, with four terraces and a base of 14 acres, Monks Mound is the largest earthen structure in the Americas.
Mr. Mann tells us that "the elite revamped Monks Mound. By extending a low platform from one side, they created a stage for priests to perform ceremonies in full view of the public." (pg303)
The first terrace of Monks Mound is a late addition and it very well may have been used as a stage to address large gatherings in the forty acre Grand Plaza. I mention this in my tours, but point out that it is speculation. Beyond the apparent acoustics in the Grand Plaza (some archeologist have noted that, in the early mornings, it is sometimes possible to clearly hear the voices of people ascending the mound) there isn't a whole lot of evidence to support the theory.
The author tells us that one of the contributing factors to the demise of Cahokia was the diversion of Cahokia Creek. This provided additional water to the city and allowed logs to be floated downstream, but also caused flooding which destroyed the maize crop. This may well be true, but I have found no other sources that mention this diversion of Cahokia Creek. Most accounts of Cahokia's demise cite an extended drought and, perhaps, a shortened growing season.
Mound 72, in my opinion, is the most interesting mound at Cahokia. Excavations in the late 1960s by Dr. Melvin Fowler revealed about 300 burials. The most spectacular was "the beaded burial" an early chief buried on a falcon shaped blanket of 20,000 sea shell beads from the gulf of Mexico. Archeologists estimate that 60% of the burials at mound 72 were ritual killings.
Speaking of these Mr. Mann says "Among them were fifty young women who had been buried alive." (pg 298)
He may be confusing two or more separate burials.
There were about 100 young women who were likely garroted before their bodies were laid out in trenches in neat rows. I am not aware of any evidence that these victims were buried alive.
On another occasion, 50 individuals, men and women, were executed, mainly clubbed to death, and haphazardly thrown into a pit. There is evidence that some of these people were still alive when the pit was filled.
Sometime around 1150, the people at Cahokia constructed a palisade. Clearly a defensive structure, we do not know who the two mile long fence was intended to keep out.
Mr. Mann tells us that the palisade "was also intended to welcome the citizenry - anyone could freely pass through its dozen or so wide gates." (pg 303)
Actually, the "gates" into the palisade were narrow, L shaped entryways, situated between bastions, where archers easily could hold off unwanted intruders.
We are told "A catastrophic earthquake razed Cahokia in the beginning of the thirteenth century, knocking down the entire western side of Monks Mound." (pg 303)
I have a couple of problems with this statement.
The first relates to the second terrace of Monks Mound. The official literature at the Interpretative Center states that Monks Mound had four terraces. Some researchers, including Dr. Woods believes that what we now call the second terrace was the result of a massive slumpage along the western side of the mound. They may be correct, but this is still open to debate.
If Dr. Woods is correct, might the second terrace of Monks Mound be the result of an earthquake? Perhaps.
In 1811/1812, quakes along the New Madrid fault in southern Missouri caused the Mississippi River to run backwards and rang church bells in New York and Boston. Archeologists do speculate whether earthquakes had anything to do with the abandonment of Cahokia. The problem has to do with timing.
This summer I attended a Mississippian conference at Cahokia. One of the presentations dealt with this topic. There is evidence that there was a major quake along the New Madrid fault around 1450. Unfortunately this is at least 200 years too late to fit into Mr. Mann's narrative.
"The Cahokia earthquake .. must have splintered many of the city's wood-and plaster buildings; fallen torches and scattered cooking fires would have ignited the debris, burning down most surviving structures. Water from the rivers, shaken by the quake, would have sloshed into the land in a mini-tsunami. ... Meanwhile the social unrest turned violent; many houses went up in flames. There was civil war, ... fighting in the streets. The whole polity turned in on itself and tore itself apart." (pg 304)
If this scenario played out, one would expect ample archeological evidence. If it exists, I have missed it.
Finally, there are two statements in 1491 I find particularly strange.
"Monks Mound opens into a plaza a thousand feet long. In it southwest corner is a pair of mounds, one conical, one square. One day I climbed up their grassy sides at sunset." (pg 289)
You are not allowed to climb on any of the mounds except Monks Mound. There are signs posted throughout the site. Perhaps the author had special.
"A friend and I first visited Cahokia in 2002 ... The site is now a state park with a small museum." (pg 302)
Has Mr. Mann ever actually been to Cahokia? The Historic Site ceased being a state park in 1977. The "small museum" was replaced in 1989 by a 33,000 ft interpretative center that receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
People who would like to read this book are lay people who have an interest in archaeology, history, or first nations cultures. A second group of readers interested in this book might be people who are interested in climate change and the human contribution to it. In this book are fascinating accounts of how the Indians landscaped the Americas and what we have heretofore considered "wilderness" is really the remains of vast agricultural and technological projects created by powerful Empires, sort of like the Roman aqueduct.
I took a star off because it is written by a journalist and not a scientist, and at times, no matter how much the author tries to show the multiple sides of scientific arguments, there seem to be the hints of sensationalism in this story that even the best journalists seem trained to create. Because of this sensationalism, reading it, one gets the feeling that the story is mostly true, but you can't really figure out which parts have been exaggerated. This slight distrust of the author is cemented by the last section of the book, in which the author opines about the Indian influence on the political philosophers of Enlightenment Europe and their subsequent influence on the founders of the American republic. Here, he trumps up arguments that are marginal or have been discredited and uses thin evidence to show that the Indians were the true founders of all that we as modern Americans hold great and dear. He makes this argument transparently, fulling admitting that he writes the last section to advance his own hypothesis, which turns out to be really thin, and somehow comes full circle about the Noble Savage concept: Indians were so noble, that they invented freedom. .