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1491 by Charles Mann

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus - Charles C. Mann

This is an important book. The author compiles historical and archaeological research to provide a history of the Americas before (and shortly after) the arrival of Europeans. And it’s a legit history, in ways I didn’t realize were even lacking in my previous acquaintance with early American history before reading the book. Compared to most other parts of the world, we know relatively little about the early Americas, but there’s a lot more information available than is generally taught to the public, and so much of what we do know tends to be couched in these dismissive frameworks where native Americans are some sort of separate species of people, barbarians or noble savages or quasi-mythological beings, depending on your persuasion, all political structures consisting of “tribes” and their “chiefs” no matter how large the groups or sophisticated their political organization, everyone “living lightly on the land” and “in tune with nature” and so on. We know there were actual empires in Mexico and the Andes, and yet we reduce them to barbarians drinking out of skulls or performing human sacrifice (see: the worthless “documentaries,” always shot at night in red and black, that my teachers showed in middle school). We don’t stop to ask about all the trappings of civilization that empires tend to have, or that cultures tend to develop on their way to becoming empires: what sort of political and economic systems did they have? What kinds of technology and writing systems were developed? What about poetry and philosophy? Who were the leaders, innovators and thinkers, and what were their ideas?


Much of the achievement of this book, then, is writing a history of the Americas in the same way one writes a history of European or Asian cultures, and in fact, Mann uses numerous helpful comparisons between similar practices in different cultures, stripping away the mythology of native America that gets in the way of viewing people as people. It isn’t nearly as complete as histories about anywhere in Eurasia, and reading this book drives home the magnitude of how much history and culture has been lost, but there is a ton of information and detail here that I’d never encountered before. Some of Mann’s broad points no longer quite seem like “new revelations”: I think it’s fairly well-known among educated people at this point that the more hospitable parts of the Americas were heavily populated upon European arrival, then overwhelmingly reduced by disease. But other theses were still new to me: the extent of the land management carried out throughout North and South America, for instance, from regular burning of forests to maintain a particular ecological balance, to the Mayan engineering of potable water by paving over toxic elements in the Yucatan’s swamps with limestone, to the human-created fertile soil in the Amazon that now covers between a few thousand square miles and 10% of the basin, depending on whose estimates you believe.


So I found this to be a really fascinating, enlightening book, told in an engaging style, though I do have a few caveats. The book spends a lot of time on drama amongst scientists, which at first I found out of place, though by the end I realized the importance of including it: our learning about history is by no means finished, and readers who know how the sausage is made are perhaps better qualified to analyze scientific differences of opinion in the future. The book also jumps around a fair bit, organized by very broad topics and then returning to discuss the same cultures in different segments; it’s best read when you have time to engage with it and flip back to earlier sections to refresh your memory. The section on the Amazon seems less complete and persuasive than the others. And the author’s obvious desire to turn the information in this book into an ecological lesson, or some kind of rebuke to the environmental movement (hah! The Americas were never pristine after all!) seems forced and unhelpful: the fact that native Americans engaged in more active stewardship and cultivation than previously supposed doesn’t make the idea of destroying everything for temporary economic gain any better. But this is a small part of the book, perhaps tacked on because the author felt like he was supposed to impart a lesson.


Overall though, I think this is a fantastic book despite those few caveats, because it is so eye-opening, a great, accessible source of information that will probably be new to most of its readers, and because it represents a shift in popular thought about North and South American history. It is thorough, well-sourced and engaging, and I definitely recommend it.