1491 Summary

Charles C. Mann


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1491 Summary

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This non-fiction book argues that the popular image of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus is inaccurate, and based on emerging scientific thought, Mann presents a picture of life in the pre-Columbian Americas far more advanced, and much more bustling, than is generally imagined.

Mann’s introduction starts by refuting the notion that Native Americans arrived on the content solely by way of the Bering Strait 20,000 to 25,000 years ago. He also disputes the common preconception that Native Americans did little to change their environment through all that time. This incorrect conclusion about early Americans is largely based on observations of scientists who met primitive peoples in Bolivia. The main scientist, Allan R. Holmberg, incorrectly concluded that the people he found there had always lived a primitive existence, marked by low population numbers. He failed to take into account the ravages of smallpox that decimated the tribe’s numbers. Mann calls his error “Holmberg’s Mistake.” This sets the stage for further complicating what people generally think of life in the pre-Columbian Americas.

In part one of the book, titled “Numbers from Nowhere,” Mann considers the technologies of colonial New England, and he concludes that the technology of the colonists was far inferior to the technology of the indigenous peoples. Remarkably, this also includes guns. Mann cites Jamestown Colony leader John Smith as remarking that the bow and arrow combination of the Native Americas could shoot farther, straighter, and more accurately than even his best guns. Additionally, Native American moccasins and canoes were much better for the environment than European boots and boats.

Mann turns next to the Incan people. In particular, he tries to understand their population numbers in relation to the size of the armies of the conquistadors. Mann concludes that the decline of the Incan Empire was much more likely the result of epidemics of diseases like smallpox rather than superior European war tactics. He contends that European invaders never fully capitalized on the advantage their horses gave them, nor did the Incans properly exploit their anti-horse weaponry.

Mann concludes by saying that the Incan population probably more closely resembled the estimates of the so-called “High Counters,” and that the Incans may have numbered close to 100 million.

Part two, “Very Old Bones,” discusses the age of remains found on the continent as a way of assessing how long native people were in the Americas before Columbus. Remains discovered in New Mexico were among the first to be carbon dated, and the original results pointed to their ages being between 13,500 and 12,900 years old. Mann explains that recent evidence reveals that Paleo-Indians were in the area much earlier than that.

Also in this section of the book is a discussion about agriculture, arguing specifically that native peoples had developed their crops over a long period of time using complex breeding processes. Mann includes a quotation from Science magazine about the development of corn from a useless plant to an important food staple crop, calling the Pre-Columbian Indians of Mexico’s efforts “man’s first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering.”

This technological advancement is extra impressive, Mann notes, because of the Native Americans’ inability to adopt inventions of other cultures due to their geographic isolation.

The third part of the book, “Landscapes With Features,” focuses on the Mayan people. Mann explains that popular theories describing the Mayan life ignore the complicated processes they had to tend the land and encourage the presence of game animals. While some scientists have concluded that the Mayans had expanded their culture too quickly, resulting in mass starvation and forced migration, Mann argues for more recent theories that claim that disease ravaged the people so badly that their agricultural advancements had been overtaken by the environment by the time European settlers arrived.

Mann blames a limited and racist view for this lack of respect or understanding of the Native American people’s advancements. He concludes his book by emphasizing the importance of understanding the past in order to build the best future.

Critics have applauded Mann’s approach to scientific inquiry in this book. He presents an even-handed view of the facts, as researchers understand them, and respectfully acknowledges the controversy of the contrasting interpretations of the evidence. The book approaches Pre-Columbian history from the perspective of the ingenious people rather than the Euro-Centric approach taken by writers and researchers in the past. This has, of course, gained the book both praise and criticism.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus won the 2006 National Academies Communication Award for increasing public understanding of science.

Mann wrote a sequel to the book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, which was published in 2011. That book, too, received positive reviews for its handling of scientific concepts.