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Tag Archives: 1491: New Revelations Of The Americas Before Columbus

The Americas Before Columbus

Charles Mann takes on a subject both wide in scope and laced with continuing controversies in 1491.  He writes in an accessible manner, so one doesn’t notice (as much as you would with a drier historian) that he is covering a monumental amount of material.

It should be a widely known fact that the Americas were very different from the common image of them as pristine wilderness with a few wandering hunter/gatherer tribes.  In actuality the continents played host to very diverse and advanced civilizations.  Mann takes this thesis and develops it, using a few key examples, from well known Aztecs and Incas to lesser known Mississippi Valley dwellers and Amazonian agriculturalists.

Mann also gives an overview of archaeology in the Americas from the earliest European settlers who were interested in their neighbors through to today.  He shows how theories have changed based on newer finds deep in the Mexican and Brazilian jungles and gives a hint of some of the rivalries that develop between proponents of differing theories.  He adroitly tackles the population debate- the ongoing debate of just how many people lived in the Americas before Europeans (and their diseases) arrived.  More recent scholarship has concluded that the numbers were much higher than anyone imagined even a century ago.

I read the book primarily because of my interest in the Amazon and the native populations there.  I enjoy learning about the Amazonian jungle and how, contrary to most historical and contemporary environmentalist opinion, it most certainly is not an untouched primeval forest.  Rather, both the layout of the forest and many of the plants found within are a direct result of centuries of methodical and intensive farming by people who were very aware of both the gifts and limitations of their environment.