Like many people who grew up in the United States, Charles Mann was taught distortions, myths, and omissions about the Native Americans when he was in school. But, unlike many Americans, Mann has the curiosity and writing chops to do something about it. The result is the fascinating and hugely informative 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. This book dives into the historical evidence and the debates to try and understand what life was like for indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus planted the Spanish flag on Hispañola.
Mann takes on myth after myth in 1491: that the Native Americans were passive, proto-environmentalist guardians of the earth; that there weren’t that many indigenous people and the land was empty; that large cities like Tenochtitlán and complex societies were rare; that Native Americans were late-comers from the Old World. Every one of these theories collapses when Mann reviews the evidence. He uses contemporary writings from conquistadores, early explorers, and colonists—pairing them with archaeological findings—to reveal how populous and complicated were the societies of the so-called New World. Sadly, Mann also finds that it didn’t take long for disease and factionalism to make it easy for Europeans to topple the Triple Alliance (the Aztec Empire), the Wampanoag confederation, the Inkan Empire, and so many other groups.
1491 is the kind of book that I think my family and friends fear. It is so packed with information that I can’t help sharing them and talking their ears off about Native American agronomy (so many varieties of maize!), Nahuatl words we still use in English today (coyote! avocado!), how the Inkan invented a construction-based version of Communism, and so many other things. The downside to learning all these amazing things is, as Mann points out a few times, that disease and Europeans destroyed so much. What might have been if the indigenous people has been more resistant to disease?
In addition to providing the equivalent of a college seminar course on pre-1492 life in the Western Hemisphere, Mann also dives into the centuries’ long historical debates about Native American life. Because so much of the New World had been depopulated, many early anthropologists developed woefully uninformed theories about “primitive” and “poor” societies that never progressed much beyond hunger-gatherer level. It took decades of digs throughout the hemisphere to start to change that. It could be argued that it wasn’t until LIDAR and aerial photography were developed that archaeologists could finally see how much indigenous people had altered their environments and adapted to a pair of continents without large draft animals, an entirely different grain staple, and other factors. Mann is very clever in how he presents all of this. He frequently leads us through the logic that lead to those early theories before exploding them. Thus, the tone of the book isn’t so much as “you are wrong” as it is “we were (maybe) understandably wrong before and now we know better.”
Mann’s 1491 is everything I love in nonfiction. It’s full of information, written in an engaging and often entertaining style. It takes on important questions and, even better, makes me question everything I thought I knew. I enjoyed this book so much that I badgered my brother into reading it, while I was visiting over the Christmas holiday, before I’d even finished the book. 1491 absolutely deserves its reputation as a great work of modern history.