1491

1491 by Charles C. Mann, second edition9781400032051

publication date: 2011
pages: 541
ISBN: 9781400032051

The title of this book came from the year immediately before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. Charles C. Mann wanted to show what life was like for the people in the Americas before European contact. The book, originally published in 2005, was very popular. I was reading the second edition, published in 2011. After reading it, I understood why the book was popular and why it warranted a second edition.

Mann wasn’t just describing American Indian life in 1491. He also was attempting to show why our modern conceptions of pre-Columbian peoples are wrong. He had three main ideas about the American Indians before European contact. First, that they were numerous and the Americas were densely populated. Second, that the native peoples’ societies were old and complex. And third, that American Indians manipulated the land around them to suit their needs and desires.

Mann used extensive research to support his ideas. He quoted academic papers, interviews, and primary sources. He also included evidence and sources that contradicted his own ideas. Notwithstanding this inclusion, most of his arguments were effectively convincing. For example, Mann argued that the number of Indians killed by European diseases was extraordinarily high: perhaps 9 in 10 killed within 200 years of contact. His explanation for this was clear and persuasive:

When humans and domesticated animals share quarters, they are constantly exposed to each other’s microbes. Over time, mutation lets animal diseases jump to people: avian influenza becomes human influenza, bovine rinderpest becomes human measles, horsepox becomes human smallpox. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not live in constant contact with many animals. They domesticated only the dog; the turkey . . .; and the llama, the alpaca, the Muscovy duck and the guinea pig . . . .

Mann then went on to explain that when the Europeans brought domesticated animals, especially pigs, to the Indian homeland, Indian immune systems were not prepared for animal diseases, and some communities experienced death rates of 96 percent.

Mann not only provided compelling arguments for his theories, he also included interesting and enlightening details about American Indian life. For example:

The Olmec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican societies were world pioneers in mathematics and astronomy – but they did not use the wheel. Amazingly, they had invented the wheel but did not employ it for any purpose other than children’s toys. Those looking for a tale of cultural superiority can find it in zero; those looking for failure can find it in the wheel. Neither line of argument is useful, though. What is most important is that by 1000 a.d. Indians had expanded their [agricultural] revolutions to create a panoply of diverse civilizations across the hemisphere.

Although 1491 was sometimes dense, it was routinely interesting and presented an innovative and compelling picture of the Americas before European contact.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

New York Times
Root Simple
Foreign Affairs