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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus Paperback – October 10, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 AsiaDates 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 Giza2650
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
Reconstruction of Cahokia, c. 1250 A.D.*
Abrupt rise of Cahokia, near modern St. Louis, the largest city north of the Rio Grande. Population estimates vary from at least 15,000 to 100,000.
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
Sixteenth-century Mexica drawing of the effects of smallpox**
Cortes driven from Tenochtitlán, capital of the Triple Alliance, and then gains victory as smallpox, a European disease never before seen in the Americas, kills at least one of three in the empire.
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).
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 541 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; 1st edition (October 10, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400032059
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400032051
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,006 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,425 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I have been a volunteer at Cahokia Mounds for about three years, leading guided tours of the Historic site. I have read extensively about Cahokia's history, attended a few conferences and had access to several of the principal archeologists at the site. I consider myself fairly well informed.

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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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