1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

3.29

In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and rchaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man ’ s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and ascinating world we only thought we knew.

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Original Series
Year of the Publication
Publication Date
Published October 10th 2006 by Vintage (first published August 9th 2005
Original Title of the Book
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Number of Pages
541

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gave it

I knew pretty much everything about the Incas, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and all the other societies that actually were possibly BIGGER than Europe in 1492, and dwarfed it in centuries before.

gave it

That said, there were numerous peccadillos.Mann starts with the basic fact that the West 's primary mistake in our conception of American Indians is that we have generally seen them as unchanging features in a primeval wilderness.

This, he argues, is dehumanizing, regardless of whether you prefer to prefix " savage " with " noble, " because a people incapable of change seems incapable of will, of thought, of ingenuity.He attempts to dismantle this notion by presenting research supporting 3 broad ideas:1) pre-Columbian population estimates are now assumed to be much higher than previously thought ( i.e. between the time of first contact and the colony at Plymouth, humanity in the Americans witnessed a massive die-off) 2) humans were present in North America for tens of thousand of years, and the constraint of their societies were comparable with with Eurasian counterparts3) Indians could and did exert influence over the natural worldOn the whole, I think Mann made convincing arguments for the broad stokes.

Reconstructing history is a tricky business fraught with error, so when you 're trying to communicate a challenging and controversial notion like the number of American Indians who died as a consequence of European diseases, I think you need to go into excruciating detail about how population numbers are derived.

Have you seen any human artwork prior to Enlightenment Europe?

You get the picture.Finally, I found his constant comparisons to Europe and the general ense of hand-wringing and guilt a bit trying, and that 's coming from a self-avowed Western liberal hand-wringer.

I found the penultimate bit about defining our relationship to nature and the final section about the role American Indian concepts of freedom and individuality may have influenced the ounding of the United States super intriguing, worth books of their own.

gave it

The omparisons between the two hemisphere 's agriculture and domesticable animals are fine, but the argument that Aztec ( apparently it 's more politically correct to call them Mexica) philosophy was as rich as medieval europe 's is ludicrous, especially given that such a huge volume of Aztec codices have been preserved and deciphered.

The Aztecs did some respectable philosophical work, but Mann 's exaggerations aside, they did n't come close to rivaling the work done in ancient Greece, to say nothing of the subsequent 2,000 years of philosophy in Europe ( with a nod towards Middle Eastern contributions as well) that took place between the death of ristotle and the iscovery of the new world.

gave it

There is a reason why there was a period of 128 years between Colombus' landing and a permanent European settlement in North America.

The nly reason people think that most Native Americans were purely nomadic hunters was because the smallpox had killed off most of the 'urbanized' settlements that required agriculture.

gave it

Updated Recommendations: For an excellent stud of some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in North America, consider Settlement Of The Americas A New Prehistory -- it is more scholarly as well as being much more readable and interesting.

Timothy Egan 's Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis is an interesting introduction to one of the most definitive chronicles of Native American cultures in North America.

gave it

This was like a coloring book of pre-Pilgrim North America for me in that it filled in a lot of unanswered questions and brilliantly illuminated some areas of my knowledge that were mere outlines.

Early on in school we were inundated with stories of Samoset and Squanto, the first Native Americans to make contact with the Plymouth Colony pilgrims, and how in 1621 they strolled into the transplanted Englishmen 's village and a big party broke out, thus began the tradition of Thanksgiving.

Something tells me this version of America 's founding by Europeans was not the one being taught in Virginia at the time ... Never was explained how the two natives could speak English ( from Englishmen fishing off of the Maine coast and, in Squanto 's case, from rap and internment for seven years in England) or anything that happened in the Americas prior to the pilgrims landing.

Now there is less grey-area material- advances in technology and archaeological practices have greatly advanced our knowledge of the past in just a few short decades- but there 's still plenty of unknown patches of time in the western hemisphere.

It does n't try to cast a glowing angelic light upon the native inhabitants to transform them into woodland spirits whose only concern was the preservation of the rees and the animals, etc blah blah blah ( Earth Day is quaint and misguided, but I digress ...), nor does Mann attempt to attack or defend the actions of the Colonists.

gave it

This book blows up many stubborn, out-dated theories like the singular Bering land-bridge migration, the notion that the land was 'mostly empty' when Europeans arrived, and the ideas that most indigenous peoples were 'simple' hunter gatherers.

It also gives us a good look at just how stubborn and resistant traditional Euro-American scholarship has been to accepting any new information that did n't fit established theories about the indigenous peoples.

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