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Book review: “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann

Prior to publishing 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus in 2006, Charles C. Mann had co-authored a few books on science and technology.  But he had specialized in writing magazine pieces on scientific subjects for such publications as Fortune, Smithsonian, Technology Review, Vanity Fair, Science, the Atlantic Monthly and Wired.

Indeed, at many points in 1491, Mann describes encounters he had with archeologists and visits he made to ancient sites while carrying out magazine assignments.

So, it’s not very surprising that his book has the feel of several long magazine stories packaged together under a single thesis.

That thesis could be summarized in a question that Mann read in an article in a technical journal in 1992:

“What was the New World like at the time of Columbus?”

Nomadic Indians and virgin landscapes

In other words, when Christopher Columbus and his crews became the first Europeans to record a visit to the Western Hemisphere, who were the Indians that they found? How many Indians were there in what became known as North America and South America?  What were the cultures and civilizations of the Indians?  What was the relationship of the Indians to their landscapes?  How long had they been there?

For much of the past five hundred years, the answers to those questions, as presented in textbooks and general histories, were that, at the time Columbus arrived, Indians had loosely settled the two continents and, with a few exceptions, lived nomadic lives, hunting and gathering and living off the bounty of the land. 

And the land they lived on was primeval Nature, a virgin landscape, as pristine as when the Indians arrived.  It remained pure because the Indians were so technologically primitive and used the land so lightly. 

It was that primordial wildness that, starting in the mid-20th century, environmentalists asserted was the ideal — an ideal to use as the template in protecting the few “virgin” areas left and in reconstructing such wildernesses.

Mann, though, knew — and found out even more as he researched — that those ideas were very much out of date.  So, he wrote his book.

Demography, origins and ecology

At the beginning of 1491, Mann alerts the reader that his book isn’t a systematic, chronological account of the Western Hemisphere’s cultural and social development before Europeans arrived.  Such a book, he comments, would need to be so vast in scope in terms of space and time that it would be impossible to write.

Nor, he writes, is it a “full intellectual history of the recent changes in perspective among the anthropologists, archeologists, ecologists, geographers, and historians who study the first Americans,” a similarly impossible task since so many new ideas “are still rippling outward in too many directions” to be contained in a single work.

“Instead, this book explores what I believe to be the three main foci of the new findings: Indian demography (Part I), Indian origins (Part II) and Indian ecology (Part III).  Because so many different societies illustrate these points in such different ways, I could not possibly be comprehensive.  Instead, I chose my examples from cultures that are among the best documented, or have drawn the most recent attention, or just seemed the most intriguing.”

“A sweeping portrait”

After reading 1491, I disagree with Mann that his approach was the only viable one.  And I think he made a mistake to write the book he wrote.

Of course, what do I know? 

1491 was and remains a bestseller, called “a sweeping portrait of human life in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus” by the New York Times and “concise and brilliantly entertaining” by the Los Angeles Times.  I must be barking up the wrong tree.  After all, as the century-old song says, 50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.

Well, for what it’s worth, I think Mann’s book was and remains a bestseller because of his magazine-article approach to the stories that make up his chapters and sections of chapters. 

Like many a magazine writer, Mann puts himself in the story.  Here he is at this ruin watching Archeologist A ever-so-carefully digging up a piece of pottery.  Here he is in an office at Harvard or Chicago’s Field Museum or Stanford interviewing Anthropologist B or Historian C.

Also, like many a magazine story, the tales Mann tells often have to do with disputes between one set of experts and another set of experts.  This gives these accounts a narrative tension — Is this one right?  Or maybe this one?

How iffy or solid?

Having proclaimed comprehensiveness to be impossible, Mann gives himself freedom to tell stories all over the hemispheric map from all up and down the millenniums.

Conceivably, the result could have been an impressionistic account of the state of research into the world and lives of ancient Indians.  It wouldn’t have been comprehensive, but it might have given an overview that would stress what seems pretty clear rather than emphasizing the debates over what’s not clear.

Mann, though, doesn’t present an overview.  Instead, he layers this story on that story on another story in what, to me, seemed to be a hodge-podge of dates and details and personalities. This, I think, is due to his magazine-article approach to his text.

The stuff with a story fits, and the stuff without a story is left out.  The only framework is a vaguely delineated subject area, such as Indian demography.  The goal is to inform and entertain, with the main emphasis on entertainment.

I felt inundated and overwhelmed by all this data, much of it in question, presented in anecdote after scene after debate after speculation.  From page to page, I couldn’t tell how iffy or solid this stuff was.

It seems pretty clear — and Mann’s accounts of bad old theories reinforce this — that the descriptions by present-day scholars about Indian life five hundred or two thousand or however many years ago are based on an attempt to read of the evidence.

In some cases, there is actually something to read written in a language that can be deciphered although that involves a lot of guesswork.  Even more guesswork comes into play when experts are trying to envision what life was like for specific Indians at some specific time in the far distant past based on ruins and pottery and pollen counts.

It’s detective work.  Here, the focus is on the detecting, on the story of the detecting, rather than stepping back and giving an analysis of a pattern of discovery.  I would have preferred a book that involved both detective stories and analysis.

Key findings

The key findings of Mann’s book are fairly simple in the broadest sense:

  • Modern research seems to indicate pretty clearly that there were a lot more Indians in the Western Hemisphere in 1491 that previous generations of researchers had believed.  Exactly how many is widely debated.
  • Modern research seems to indicate pretty clearly that Indians have been on the two continents a lot longer than previous generations of researchers had believed. Exactly how many is widely debated.
  • Modern research seems to indicate pretty clearly that Indians did much to shape, manipulate, rearrange and tinker with the natural world — to terraform, to suit their needs — than previous generations of researchers had been able to envision. 

The moral dimension

These are striking insights, and they raise many questions about the collision of Europeans with Indians after the arrival of Columbus, such as the deaths of large numbers of Indians who had no means to fight off the diseases that Europeans — innocently — brought with them.

Innocent to the extent that, for the most part, Europeans weren’t trying to use disease as a means of clearing Indians off the land. 

But not innocent inasmuch as there is a moral dimension to the invasion that Europeans carried out in the Americas.  No Indians would have died of European diseases if the Europeans had not come to the Americas.  Unintended consequences are still consequences.

Mann does touch on such questions, but, for me, his consideration of these issues were buried in all of the stories and factoids and speculations.

Again, what do I know?  Many reviewers have praised the book, and many readers have purchased copies. 

I wonder, though, after being entertained by Mann’s stories, how many readers, say, three months after reading the book, remember the details of any of them.

Patrick T. Reardon



  • Darnell Little
    Posted January 5, 2023 at 6:48 pm

    Hi Pat. I read this book soon after it was published. To me, it did read like a collection of separate magazine articles. It was the information given, which you have summarized, that I found interesting and memorable, not the overall reading experience. I think I would have the same experience if I attended a university lecture on this material. I just found the subject matter so interesting that the packaging and narrative delivery became a secondary concern.

    • Post Author
      Patrick T Reardon
      Posted January 5, 2023 at 7:19 pm

      Hey, Darnell — Great to hear from you. This is our History Book Club book for this month. We’re meeting on Tuesday in Oak Park if you’d like to join us. (Let me know.) You’re right, the material is all very interesting and eye-opening. My complaint is from the standpoint of a reader and a writer. For me, there were so many dates, places, anecdotes, academic controversies, bad old theories, good new theories and so on that my eyes glazed over and I found I had a hard time retaining anything except the main bullet points. The writer in me was frustrated at this, realizing that there were any number of other ways of writing the book that wouldn’t have had to have this “glazed-over” problem. Still, I’m sure that, on Tuesday, I’ll be in the minority in the discussion since this book really does open a window onto stuff most of us don’t know much or anything about…..or, worse, think we know stuff that’s actually wrong! Hope you’re doing well. Pat

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