“1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann (Knopf, 2005)


If I were to ask you what you know on the subject of the people that lived in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus and how they got there, you’d likely tell me they came over from Asia during the last ice age and proceeded to populate North, Central and South America in their small numbers and lived a nominal existence, traveling in tribes, forming their small civilizations, such as the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans, which eventually disappeared and then their lives were changed for the better when Columbus arrived in 1492, and brought the western world of civilization to the Americas.  Charles C. Mann noted essentially this when he read his son’s history books and saw that the supposed accurate history hadn’t changed since he’d been in high school, which didn’t seem right.  And so began years of research and learning that has gone on to change the way the western world sees the history of the Americas pre-Columbus.  While the book was revolutionary when it was released, went on to win awards and make a lot of “best of” lists, there is still a lot of educating of the world to be done with this true history; hopefully this book will help that cause.

In 1491 Mann seeks to reveal the last thirty years of archaeological and anthropological research and discoveries with the hope that it will change and alter all the commonly held assumptions mentioned above.  He does this in a well thought out way, revealing all the evidence and theory on particular subjects, like the whole population of people in the Americas, as well as the sizes and extents of the various empires that formed, and then proving what is the correct one and why, such as the astonishing fact that in 1491 there were likely more people living in the Americas than in Europe!  He goes into detail on the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, revealing their true extensiveness and reach and the affect they had on the people, their development and knowledge, and simple things, like why they had invented the wheel but didn’t use it as a means of transportation, because the rocky or jungle terrain made traveling by wheel wouldn’t be inefficient.  As to the supposed fact that the peopling of the Americas took place around twelve or thirteen thousand years ago with the Bering Strait land bridge, the evidence says otherwise, with some pointing to the mere existence of the peoples in the Americas before this period, as well as the crucial cutoff date with the end of the ice age not correctly coinciding with the people reaching South America according to the timeline; basically the evidence simply proves otherwise.

By the end of the book, the reader has come to the incredible realization that most of what they learned in school about the Americas is completely wrong, and that this supposedly undiscovered continent went on to do amazing things for the rest of the world, such as providing it with three-fifths of the world’s grown goods, including corn (or maize), peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and squash.  In fact the term “new world” may have been somewhat of a misnomer, as it seems possible the settling of the Americas may have happened before western civilization.

Much as Guns, Germs and Steel was revolutionary in changing our outlook on the way the world is, 1491 has the same affect on how the world views the Americas, what its true history was, the immense effect it had on the world after Columbus, and how the idea that these people were simple and primitive is just ridiculous.  The book is by no means an easy read, but once the reader makes it through, the fulfillment is well worthwhile and enlightening to say the least.

Originally written on March 17, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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