1491: A Book Review

How many people lived in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus? What kind of culture did they have? How was the surrounding environment affected? These questions and more have puzzled people since the first scholars began to wonder. In the book 1492: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus Charles C. Mann looks at the answers to these questions using current research.

Over the years many have put forth ideas about the native inhabitants of the Americas. The first Europeans saw them as bands of inferior savages. Because of the differences in the two cultures, the native cultures may not have even been seen as cultures. For example, Conquistadors complained about the state of the roads which were full of steps and impossible for the horses to navigate, but which were well suited to the llamas used by the Inca. Later generations saw Native Americans as scattered bands living peacefully in largely untouched nature.

Mann argues that neither of these views do justice to the intelligence and capability of the original inhabitants. Using both new sources and records left by early Spanish explorers, he argues that the population of the Americas was large, technologically advanced, and influenced much of the environment. Tenochtitlan was larger, and cleaner, than any contemporary European city. Corn was developed over hundreds of years to the point that we aren’t sure what the original parent plant was. Aerial photography has revealed thousands of acres of prehistoric farmland in Brazil. Through theses and many other examples Mann makes his case.

This is a surprisingly enjoyable read. 1491 is not just another dry history book, but an engaging look at what life may have been like in North and South America before Europeans arrived.