1491 by Charles Mann: Book Review

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By Charles C Mann

2005, Vintage ISBN -10:I-4000-3205-9

Based on many sources of objective evidence from the last few decades, the author makes a solid and extensively documented case that our common concept of the Americas before ‘discovery’ is hugely erroneous. For example:

  • The population several areas was several times that of Europe.
  • The inhabitants were usually taller, more hygienic, and healthier than the ‘discoverers’, the colonists or conquistadores.
  • They actively managed their environment, the land, the animals, birds, estuaries, and forests. They burned the forests and grasslands to promote feed and to clear land for farming. They managed game aggressively over millions of acres of land.  Even in places like the Chihuahua desert, the hillsides still often show rough man made terracing to promote growth of native plants used for food, fiber, fuel, etc. After the ‘indians’ were decimated or conquered, the environment, no longer managed, changed radically.
  • They developed, over centuries, many crops like corn, squash, tobacco, tomatoes, potatoes, manioc; the origin of corn, for example, and the process used to develop it, is still unknown.
  • They domesticated the llama, alpaca,vicuna.
  • The developed and inhabited areas are extensive over our two continents.  In the flood plane of  eastern Bolivia,  which is Serengeti like, there are hundreds of man made raised platforms presumably for farming or living during the time of flooding.
  • When an area of the great mounds near modern St Louis were first  explored, the natives were many, fierce, and so haughty and hostile that the fearful conquistadores passed by quietly as possible. The next large expedition about 70 years later found the place abandoned. There was no one. Why? Very likely microbes and viruses, the real conquistadores, wiped them out.
  • The same microbial conquerors made it  possible for the English colonists to subdue the natives of the East coast U S; and the story is repeated over and over and over again everywhere in the Americas. Neither gunpowder nor horses had much to do with the conquest excepting in the very beginning, when they were strange and frightening. A slow firing musket or pistol, and a steel sword and armor are no match for hundreds of bows and arrows fired from behind cover.

Mr. Mann’s allegations, to use the unfortunate legalistic patois of the modern US citizen, are in sharp contrast to what is still commonly taught in our schools; it contradicts our predominant view of the American past as a virgin land populated by primitive people  who, with few exceptions, lived a nomadic existence in a passive, reverent, and  respectful harmony with the timeless and unchanged environment. While fictional pristine world is one we tend to admire and aspire to recreate, with some justification, it is that is mistaken for the truth.

While is not the first author to present these facts, he is one who brings them together in a readable and gripping account that can be easily enjoyed by the non academic reader.  Read it if you aren’t familiar with these findings; at the least it will change your understanding about the allegation the one world is new and the other is old.

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