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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

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A groundbreaking study that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492.

Traditionally, Americans learned in school that the ancestors of the people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere at the time of Columbus?s landing had crossed the Bering Strait twelve thousand years ago; existed mainly in small, nomadic bands; and lived so lightly on the land that the Americas was, for all practical purposes, still a vast wilderness. But as...

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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

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Overview

A groundbreaking study that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492.

Traditionally, Americans learned in school that the ancestors of the people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere at the time of Columbus’s landing had crossed the Bering Strait twelve thousand years ago; existed mainly in small, nomadic bands; and lived so lightly on the land that the Americas was, for all practical purposes, still a vast wilderness. But as Charles C. Mann now makes clear, archaeologists and anthropologists have spent the last thirty years proving these and many other long-held assumptions wrong.

In a book that startles and persuades, Mann reveals how a new generation of researchers equipped with novel scientific techniques came to previously unheard-of conclusions. Among them:

• In 1491 there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe.
• Certain cities–such as Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital–were far greater in population than any contemporary European city. Furthermore, Tenochtitlán, unlike any capital in Europe at that time, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and immaculately clean streets.
• The earliest cities in the Western Hemisphere were thriving before the Egyptians built the great pyramids.
• Pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico developed corn by a breeding process so sophisticated that the journal Science recently described it as “man’s first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering.”
• Amazonian Indians learned how to farm the rain forest without destroying it–a process scientists are studying today in the hope of regaining this lost knowledge.
• Native Americans transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already massively “landscaped” by human beings.

Mann sheds clarifying light on the methods used to arrive at these new visions of the pre-Columbian Americas and how they have affected our understanding of our history and our thinking about the environment. His book is an exciting and learned account of scientific inquiry and revelation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A superbly written and very important book: by far the most comprehensive synthesis I’ve ever seen of the growing body of evidence that our most deep-rooted ideas about the peopling of the Western hemisphere and the kinds of societies that had developed there by the time of European contact are fundamentally wrong. Charles C. Mann is one of those rare writers who can make scholarly concepts exciting and accessible without trivializing them. In 1491 he has integrated the latest research in many different areas with his own insights and experiences to produce a fascinating and addictively readable tour through the ‘New World’ before its ‘discovery.’ His book is, above all, a wonderful, unsentimental act of restitution–challenging centuries of cultural contempt and willful blindness to show just how vigorous, various, densely populated and profoundly human the pre-Columbian Americas really were.”
–James Wilson, author of
The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America

“In the tradition of Jared Diamond and John McPhee, a transforming new vision of pre-Columbian America.”
–Richard Rhodes

“Every American knows it was a vast new world that Columbus found in 1492, and most imagine it was a thinly peopled paradise of plants, animals, and hunter-gatherers waiting for civilization. The reality, Charles C. Mann tells us in his startling new book about the world before Columbus, is very different–two continents teeming with languages, cultures, and mighty cities as big, as rich, and even more populous than the capitals of Europe. But there was one thing the new world lacked–resistance to the diseases of the old. This is a lively book, filled with excitements and sorrows–a major contribution to our understanding of the achievements and the fate of the people we call Indians.”
–Tom Powers

“Charles C. Mann takes us into a complex, fascinating, and unknown world, that of the Indians who lived in this hemisphere before Columbus. He gently demolishes entrenched myths, with impressive scholarship, and with an elegance of style which that makes his book a pleasure to read as well as a marvelous education.”
–Howard Zinn

“When does American history begin? The old answer used to be 1492, with the European arrival in the Americas. That answer is no longer politically or historically correct. For the last thirty years or so historians, geographers, and archaeologists have built up an arsenal of evidence about the residents of North America after the ice receded and before the Europeans arrived. Mann has mastered that scholarship and written the most elegant synthesis of the way we were before the European invasion.”
–Joseph J. Ellis, author of
His Excellency: George Washington

Kevin Baker
Mann navigates adroitly through the controversies. He approaches each in the best scientific tradition, carefully sifting the evidence, never jumping to hasty conclusions, giving everyone a fair hearing—the experts and the amateurs; the accounts of the Indians and their conquerors. And rarely is he less than enthralling. A remarkably engaging writer, he lucidly explains the significance of everything from haplogroups to glottochronology to landraces. He offers amusing asides to some of his adventures across the hemisphere during the course of his research, but unlike so many contemporary journalists, he never lets his personal experiences overwhelm his subject.
—The New York Times Book Review
Alan Taylor
… Mann's 1491 vividly compels us to re-examine how we teach the ancient history of the Americas and how we live with the environmental consequences of colonization.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
This production is-as most nonfiction audios ought to be-a "reading" as distinct from a "performance." Johnson renders this thoroughly researched, well-written history of early North and South American Indian populations in a strong, clear voice, with excellent intonation. His diction is almost too perfect-one occasionally focuses on pronunciation rather than content. Most of the book is written in narrative form that sweeps listeners through an exciting rethinking of all we ever learned about when so-called Indians first inhabited the American continents and how they may have come here, about their numbers, religions, cultures, inventions, social structures and their relations to European invaders and settlers. When Mann relates the internecine battles among schools of anthropologists and archeologists, however, the listener might wish he had the book in hand for clarity. It might be wise from the start to make a list of the numerous Indian and European individuals and groupings. This audiobook is well worth the trouble. Simultaneous release with the Knopf hardcover (Reviews, June 20). (August) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
The boom in new scholarship on the Western Hemisphere before Columbus is intelligently synthesized in 1491, the engrossing bestseller by the able science popularizer Mann. Sifting adroitly through the accumulating evidence and the academic disputes, Mann drives home these arguments: the Americas may well have birthed the world's first complex civilization (seizing that claim from Mesopotamia); in 1491 the Americas were densely populated by a dazzling panoply of diverse civilizations superior to 1491 Europe in many areas, including technology, statecraft, and epic poetry; and Indians throughout the Americas, far from living in a pristine, untouched ecology, found ways to manage and improve their environments (that "low-hanging fruit" grew in planted orchards). European viruses, more than guns or steel, explain the utter demise of glorious empires and up to 100 million natives. Mann softens his myth-bashing by underplaying the systematic cultural genocide of the Counter Reformation conquistadors. With its many enlightening comparisons to European achievements, 1491 should be required reading in all high school and university world history courses.
Library Journal
What were the Americas like before the arrival of Christopher Columbus changed the native cultures of the Western Hemisphere forever? Mann, a correspondent for Science and the Atlantic Monthly, provides a fascinating, in-depth examination of this question, identifying tantalizing clues and offering new conclusions from recently discovered archaeological evidence. He explores three different but ultimately related themes. First, the demographics of pre-contact Native American societies are examined to demonstrate that populations in many parts of the Americas were actually much larger than previously believed. (In fact, in all likelihood, more people were living in the Americas, pre-1492, than in Europe.) Next, Mann probes the probability that native peoples inhabited the Americas much earlier than previously thought. Finally, he examines the ecological impact that indigenous groups had on their environments. Mann has done a superb job of analyzing and distilling information, offering a balanced and thoughtful perspective on each of his themes in engaging prose. Including an extensive bibliography, this excellent archaeological synthesis is highly recommended for anthropology and archaeology collections in academic and large public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/05.]-Elizabeth Salt, Otterbein Coll. Lib., Westerville, OH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Unless you're an anthropologist, it's likely that everything you know about American prehistory is wrong. Science journalist Mann's survey of the current knowledge is a bracing corrective. Historians once thought that prehistoric Indian peoples somehow lived outside of history, adrift and directionless, "passive recipients of whatever windfalls or disasters happenstance put in their way"; that view was central to the myth of the noble savage. In fact, writes Mann (Noah's Choice, with Mark L. Plummer, 1995), Native Americans were as active in shaping their environments as anyone else. They built great and wealthy cities; they lived, for the most part, on farms; and their home continents "were immeasurably busier, more diverse, and more populous than researchers had previously imagined." In defending this view, Mann visits several thriving controversies in the historic/prehistoric record. One is the question of pre-contact demographics: old-school scholars had long advanced the idea that there were only a few million Native Americans at the time of the Columbian arrival, whereas revisionists in the 1960s posited that there were eight million on the island of Hispaniola alone, a figure punctured by revisionists of revisionism, now beset by Native American activists for the political incorrectness of adjusting the census. Another controversy is the chronology of human presence in the Americas: the old date of 12,000 b.c., courtesy of the Bering Land Bridge in Alaska, no longer cuts it. Other arguments center on the nature of Native American societies such as the Aztec and Inca, the latter of whom built a great empire that, defying Western notions of logic, had no market component. Mannaddresses each controversy with care, according the old-timers their due while making it clear that his sympathies lie, in the main, with the rising generation. He closes with a provocative thesis: namely, that the present worldwide movement toward democracy owes not to Locke or Newtonian physics, but to Indians, "living, breathing role models of human liberty."An excellent, and highly accessible, survey of America's past: a worthy companion to Jake Page's In the Hands of the Great Spirit (2003). First printing of 40,000
Midwest Book Review
If you haven't read [it] because the book form seems too weighty, don't miss the audio edition. . . . [It] is even more gripping as an audio listen, allowing listeners to absorb more of the many facts than printed word seems to readily offer.
Boston Globe
. . . a landmark of a book that drops ingrained images of colonial America into the dustbin.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400040063
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/9/2005
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 127,204
  • Product dimensions: 6.65 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.44 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles C. Mann is a correspondent for Science and The Atlantic Monthly, and has cowritten four previous books including Noah’s Choice: The Future of Endangered Species and The Second Creation. A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, he has won awards from the American Bar Association, the Margaret Sanger Foundation, the American Institute of Physics, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, among others. His writing was selected for The Best American Science Writing 2003 and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003. He lives with his wife and their children in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

1491


By Charles C. Mann

Random House

Charles C. Mann
All right reserved.

ISBN: 140004006X


Chapter One

Why Billington Survived

The Friendly Indian


On March 22, 1621, an official Native American delegation walked through what is now southern New England to negotiate with a group of foreigners who had taken over a recently deserted Indian settlement. At the head of the party was an uneasy triumvirate: Massasoit, the sachem (political-military leader) of the Wampanoag confederation, a loose coalition of several dozen villages that controlled most of what is now southeastern Massachusetts; Samoset, sachem of an allied group to the north; and Tisquantum, a distrusted captive, whom Massasoit had reluctantly brought along as an interpreter.

Massasoit was an adroit politician, but the dilemma he faced would have tested Machiavelli. About five years before, most of his subjects had fallen before a terrible calamity. Whole villages had been depopulated--indeed, the foreigners ahead now occupied one of the empty sites. It was all he could do to hold together the remnants of his people. Adding to his problems, the disaster had not touched the Wampanoag's longtime enemies, the Narragansett alliance to the west. Soon, Massasoit feared, they would take advantage of the Wampanoag's weakness and overrun them.

Desperate threats require desperate countermeasures. In a gamble, Massasoit intended to abandon, even reverse, a long-standing policy. Europeans had been visiting New England for at least a century. Shorter than the natives, oddly dressed, and often unbearably dirty, the pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of the masks of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces. They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed to Indians like basic tasks. But they also made useful and beautiful goods--copper kettles, glittering colored glass, and steel knives and hatchets--unlike anything else in New England. Moreover, they would exchange these valuable items for cheap furs of the sort used by Indians as blankets. It was like happening upon a dingy kiosk that would swap fancy electronic goods for customers' used socks--almost anyone would be willing to overlook the shopkeeper's peculiarities.

Over time, the Wampanoag, like other native societies in coastal New England, had learned how to manage the European presence. They encouraged the exchange of goods, but would only allow their visitors to stay ashore for brief, carefully controlled excursions. Those who overstayed their welcome were forcefully reminded of the limited duration of Indian hospitality. At the same time, the Wampanoag fended off Indians from the interior, preventing them from trading directly with the foreigners. In this way the shoreline groups put themselves in the position of classic middlemen, overseeing both European access to Indian products and Indian access to European products. Now Massasoit was visiting a group of British with the intent of changing the rules. He would permit the newcomers to stay for an unlimited time--provided that they formally allied with the Wampanoag against the Narragansett.

Tisquantum, the interpreter, had shown up alone at Massasoit's home a year and a half before. He spoke fluent English, because he had lived for several years in Britain. But Massasoit didn't trust him. He seems to have been in Massasoit's eyes a man without anchor, out for himself. In a conflict, Tisquantum might even side with the foreigners. Massasoit had kept Tisquantum in a kind of captivity since his arrival, monitoring his actions closely. And he refused to use him to negotiate with the colonists until he had another, independent means of communication with them.

That March Samoset--the third member of the triumvirate--appeared, having hitched a ride from his home in Maine on an English ship that was plying the coast. Not known is whether his arrival was due to chance or if Massasoit had asked him to come down because he had picked up a few English phrases by trading with the British. In any case, Massasoit first had sent Samoset, rather than Tisquantum, to the foreigners.

Samoset had walked unaccompanied and unarmed into the circle of rude huts in which the British were living on March 17, 1621. The colonists saw a robust, erect-postured man wearing only a loincloth; his straight black hair was shaved in front but flowed down his shoulders behind. To their further amazement, this almost naked man greeted them in broken but understandable English. He left the next morning with a few presents. A day later he came back, accompanied by five "tall proper men"--the phrase is the colonist Edward Winslow's--with three-inch black stripes painted down the middle of their faces. The two sides talked inconclusively, each warily checking out the other, for a few hours. Five days later, on the 22nd, Samoset showed up again at the foreigners' ramshackle base, this time with Tisquantum. Meanwhile Massasoit and the rest of the Indian company waited out of sight.

Samoset and Tisquantum spoke with the colonists for about an hour. Perhaps they then gave a signal. Or perhaps Massasoit was simply following a schedule. In any case, he and the rest of the Indian party appeared without warning at the crest of a hill on the south bank of the creek that ran through Patuxet. Alarmed by Massasoit's sudden entrance, the settlers withdrew to the hill on the opposite bank, where they had emplaced their few cannons behind a half-finished stockade. A standoff ensued.

Finally Winslow exhibited the decisiveness that later led to his selection as colony governor. Wearing a full suit of armor and carrying a sword, he waded through the stream and offered himself as a hostage. Tisquantum, who walked with him, served as interpreter. Massasoit's brother took charge of Winslow and then Massasoit crossed the water himself followed by Tisquantum and twenty of Massasoit's men, all ostentatiously unarmed. The colonists took the sachem to an unfinished house and gave him some cushions to recline on. Both sides shared some of the foreigners' homemade moonshine, then settled down to talk, Tisquantum translating.

To the colonists, Massasoit could be distinguished from his subjects more by manner than by dress or ornament. He wore the same deerskin shawls and leggings and like his fellows had covered his face with bug-repelling oil and reddish-purple dye. Around his neck hung a pouch of tobacco, a long knife, and a thick chain of the prized white shell beads called wampum. In appearance, Winslow wrote afterward, he was "a very lusty man, in his best years, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech." The Europeans, who had barely survived the previous winter, were in much worse shape. Half of the original colony now lay underground beneath wooden markers painted with death's heads; most of the survivors were malnourished.

Their meeting was a critical moment in American history. The foreigners called their colony Plymouth; they themselves were the famous Pilgrims.* As schoolchildren learn, at that meeting the Pilgrims obtained the services of Tisquantum, usually known as "Squanto." In the 1970s, when I attended high school, a popular history text was America: Its People and Values, by Leonard C. Wood, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Edward L. Biller. Nestled among colorful illustrations of colonial life was a succinct explanation of Tisquantum's role:

A friendly Indian named Squanto helped the colonists. He showed them how to plant corn and how to live on the edge of the wilderness. A soldier, Captain Miles Standish, taught the Pilgrims how to defend themselves against unfriendly Indians.

My teacher explained that maize was unfamiliar to the Pilgrims and that Tisquantum had demonstrated the proper maize-planting technique--sticking the seed in little heaps of dirt, accompanied by beans and squash that would later twine themselves up the tall stalks. And he told the Pilgrims to fertilize the soil by burying fish alongside the maize seeds, a traditional native technique for producing a bountiful harvest. Following this advice, my teacher said, the colonists grew so much maize that it became the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving. In our slipshod fashion, we students took notes.

The story in America: Its People and Values isn't wrong, so far as it goes. But the impression it gives is entirely misleading.

Tisquantum was critical to the colony's survival, contemporary scholars agree. He moved to Plymouth after the meeting and spent the rest of his life there. Just as my teacher said, Tisquantum told the colonists to bury several small fish in each maize hill, a procedure followed by European settlers for the next two centuries. Squanto's teachings, Winslow concluded, led to "a good increase of Indian corn"--the difference between success and starvation.

Winslow didn't know that fish fertilizer may not have been an age-old Indian custom, but a recent invention--if it was an Indian practice at all. So little evidence has emerged of Indians fertilizing with fish that some archaeologists believe that Tisquantum actually picked up the idea from European farmers. The notion is not as ridiculous as it may seem. Tisquantum had learned English because British sailors had kidnapped him seven years before. To return to the Americas, he in effect had to escape twice--once from Spain, where his captors initially sold him into slavery, and once from England, to which he was smuggled from Spain, and where he served as a kind of living conversation piece at a rich man's house. In his travels, Tisquantum stayed in places where Europeans used fish as fertilizer, a practice on the Continent since medieval times.

Skipping over the complex course of Tisquantum's life is understandable in a textbook with limited space. But the omission is symptomatic of the complete failure to consider Indian motives, or even that Indians might have motives. The alliance Massasoit negotiated with Plymouth was successful from the Wampanoag perspective, for it helped to hold off the Narragansett. But it was a disaster from the point of view of New England Indian society as a whole, for the alliance ensured the survival of Plymouth colony, which spearheaded the great wave of British immigration to New England. All of this was absent not only from my high school textbooks, but from the academic accounts they were based on.

This variant of Holmberg's Mistake dates back to the Pilgrims themselves, who ascribed the lack of effective native resistance to the will of God. "Divine providence," the colonist Daniel Gookin wrote, favored "the quiet and peaceable settlement of the English." Later writers tended to attribute European success not to European deities but to European technology. In a contest where only one side had rifles and cannons, historians said, the other side's motives were irrelevant. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Indians of the Northeast were thought of as rapidly fading background details in the saga of the rise of the United States--"marginal people who were losers in the end," as James Axtell of the College of William and Mary dryly put it in an interview. Vietnam War--era denunciations of the Pilgrims as imperialist or racist simply replicated the error in a new form. Whether the cause was the Pilgrim God, Pilgrim guns, or Pilgrim greed, native losses were foreordained; Indians could not have stopped colonization, in this view, and they hardly tried.

Beginning in the 1970s, Axtell, Neal Salisbury, Francis Jennings, and other historians grew dissatisfied with this view. "Indians were seen as trivial, ineffectual patsies," Salisbury, a historian at Smith College, told me. "But that assumption--a whole continent of patsies--simply didn't make sense." These researchers tried to peer through the colonial records to the Indian lives beneath. Their work fed a tsunami of inquiry into the interactions between natives and newcomers in the era when they faced each other as relative equals. "No other field in American history has grown as fast," marveled Joyce Chaplin, a Harvard historian, in 2003.

The fall of Indian societies had everything to do with the natives themselves, researchers argue, rather than being religiously or technologically determined. (Here the claim is not that indigenous cultures should be blamed for their own demise but that they helped to determine their own fates.) "When you look at the historical record, it's clear that Indians were trying to control their own destinies," Salisbury said. "And often enough they succeeded"--only to learn, as all peoples do, that the consequences were not what they expected.

This chapter and the next will explore how two different Indian societies, the Wampanoag and the Inka, reacted to the incursions from across the sea. It may seem odd that a book about Indian life before contact should devote space to the period after contact, but there are reasons for it. First, colonial descriptions of Native Americans are among the few glimpses we have of Indians whose lives were not shaped by the presence of Europe. The accounts of the initial encounters between Indians and Europeans are windows into the past, even if the glass is smeared and distorted by the chroniclers' prejudices and misapprehensions.

Second, although the stories of early contact--the Wampanoag with the British, the Inka with the Spanish--are as dissimilar as their protagonists, many archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have recently come to believe that they have deep commonalities. And the tales of other Indians' encounters with the strangers were alike in the same way. From these shared features, researchers have constructed what might be thought of as a master narrative of the meeting of Europe and America. Although it remains surprisingly little known outside specialist circles, this master narrative illuminates the origins of every nation in the Americas today. More than that, the effort to understand events after Columbus shed unexpected light on critical aspects of life before Columbus. Indeed, the master narrative led to such surprising conclusions about Native American societies before the arrival of Europeans that it stirred up an intellectual firestorm.

Coming of Age in the Dawnland

Consider Tisquantum, the "friendly Indian" of the textbook. More than likely Tisquantum was not the name he was given at birth.

Continues...


Excerpted from 1491 by Charles C. Mann Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Maps
Preface

INTRODUCTION / Holmberg’s Mistake

1. A View from Above

PART ONE / Numbers from Nowhere?

2. Why Billington Survived
3. In the Land of Four Quarters
4. Frequently Asked Questions

PART TWO / Very Old Bones

5. Pleistocene Wars
6. Cotton (or Anchovies) and Maize (Tales of Two Civilizations, Part I)
7. Writing, Wheels, and Bucket Brigades (Tales of Two Civilizations, Part II)

PART THREE / Landscape with Figures

8. Made in America
9. Amazonia
10. The Artificial Wilderness
11. The Great Law of Peace

Appendixes
A. Loaded Words
B. Talking Knots
C. The Syphilis Exception
D. Calendar Math

Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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Reading Group Guide

1. Mann begins the book with a question about our moral responsibility to the earth’s environment: Do we have an obligation, as some green activists believe, to restore environmental conditions to the state in which they were before human intervention [p. 5]? What does the story of the Beni tell us about what “before human intervention” might mean?

2. What scientists have learned about the early Americas gives the lie to what Charles C. Mann, and most of us, learned in high school: “that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait about thirteen thousand years ago, that they lived for the most part in small, isolated groups, and that they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation the continents remained mostly wilderness” [p. 4]. What is the effect of learning that most of what we have assumed about the past is “wrong in almost every aspect” [p. 4]?

3. There are many scholarly disagreements about the research described in 1491. If our knowledge of the past is based on the findings of scholars, what happens to the past when scholars don’t agree? How convincing is anthropologist Dean R. Snow’s statement, “you can make the meager evidence from the ethnohistorical record tell you anything you want” [p. 5]? Are certain scholars introduced here more believable than others? Why or why not?

4. Probably the most devastating impact from the contact between Europeans and Americans came from the spread of biological agents like smallpox. Of Mann’s various descriptions of the effects of foreign diseases on the Americas’ native populations [pp. 96—124], which are most shocking, and why? How do you respond to his questions on page 123: “In our antibiotic era, how can we imagine what it means to have entire ways of life hiss away like steam? How can one assay the total impact of the unprecedented calamity that gave rise to the world we live in?”

5. In the nineteenth century, historian George Bancroft described pre-contact America as “an unproductive waste. . . . Its only inhabitants were a few scattered tribes of feeble barbarians, destitute of commerce and of political connection” [pp. 14—15]. To what degree is the reflexive ethnocentrism of earlier times responsible for the erroneous history of the Americas we have inherited?

6. When Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto brought pigs along on his expedition in order to feed himself and his men, the pigs carried microbes that apparently wiped out the Indian populations in the southeast part of the current United States [p. 108—09]. While this episode illustrates the haphazard quality of biological devastation, how does it also connect 1491 to our contemporary world, in which the media reports daily on scientists’ fear of diseases like avian flu jumping from animal to human populations? In our present global environment, are we as vulnerable as the Indian tribes discussed by Mann? Are there, as he suggests, moral reverberations to be felt as a result of the European entrance into the Americas five centuries ago [p. 112]?

7. Several of the cultures discussed by Mann honored their dead so highly that, in effect, the dead were treated as if they were still alive. What is most interesting about the attitudes toward death and the dead found in the Chinchorro [pp. 200—01], the Chimor [p. 264], and the Inka [p. 98] cultures?

8. Much of America’s founding mythology is based on the idea of the land as an untouched wilderness, yet most scholars now agree that this pristine myth [p. 365] was a convenient story that the early settlers told themselves. What kinds of actions did the myth support, and how did it serve the purposes of the settlers?

9. Because of the lack of documentary and statistical evidence for the mass death caused by disease in the New World, experts have argued about the size of the pre-Columbian population. The so-called High Counters, according to their detractors, “are like people who discover an empty bank account and claim from its very emptiness that it once contained millions of dollars. Historians who project large Indian populations, Low Counter critics say, are committing the intellectual sin of arguing from silence” [p. 112]. Yet those who count low, Indian activists say, do so in order to diminish not only the mass death suffered by indigenous peoples, but also the significant achievements of their pre-contact cultures. Which side does it seem Charles Mann leans toward? Which side do you find more believable?

10. Consider Mann’s remark about what was lost because of the destruction wrought by Cortés and others: “Here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the disintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole. . . . The Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind” [p. 137]. How might the world have been different had the ancient cultures of the Americas survived into the present?

11. Mann writes, “Native Americans were living in balance with Nature–but they had their thumbs on the scale. . . . The American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing. It was a highly successful and stable system, if ‘stable’ is the appropriate word for a regime that involves routinely enshrouding miles of countryside in smoke and ash” [p. 284]. Why did the Indians burn acres of land? Does Mann suggest that there are the ecological lessons for our own time in the Native Americans’ active manipulation of their environment?

12. Using the words of Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, Mann explains that a “keystone” species is one “that affects the survival and abundance of many other species”; Mann adds that, “Keystone species have disproportionate impact on their ecosystems” [p. 352—53]. Indians were a keystone species in most of the hemisphere before the arrival of Columbus. What force led to their greatly diminished importance in the evolution of the hemisphere’s ecosystems? If our species now has an even greater impact on the world ecosystems, does Mann suggest ways to avoid disasters such as those he delineates in 1491?

13. Discussing foreign environmentalists’ opinions about saving the Amazonian forests, Mann raises a problem with the whole environmental movement: Those in poverty-stricken areas like Amazonia want development and jobs; wealthy, well-educated people in the U.S. and Europe tend to want to preserve these forests [pp. 363—64]. How can this problem be resolved?

14. The Gitksan Indians of Canada’s Northwest have argued a case in the Supreme Court of Canada that “the Gitksan had lived there a long time, had never left, had never agreed to give their land away, and had thus retained legal title to about eleven thousand square miles of the province” [p. xi]. What are the implications of such a claim for the various peoples and tribes that Mann discusses in 1491, and for the descendants of European settlers?

15. What does Mann mean in saying, “Understanding that nature is not normative does not mean that anything goes. . . . Instead the landscape is an arena for the interaction of natural and social forces, a kind of display, and one that like all displays is not fully under the control of its authors” [p. 365—66]?

16. People have long believed that being in the wilderness conveys a sense of the sacred. Mann explains, “The trees closing over my head in the Amazon furo made me feel the presence of something beyond myself, an intuition shared by almost everyone who has walked in the woods alone. That something seemed to have rules and resistances of its own, ones that did not stem from me” [p. 365]. What happens to this idea of a non-human force in nature if, as Mann concludes, the concept of nature is a human creation?

17. Why does Mann end 1491 with a coda on the Haudenosaunee “Great Law of Peace,” and what resonance does it have for the book as a whole?

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 137 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2007

    eye opening

    I felt motivated to write this review after seeing some of the other reviewers comment on very odd things. This book was eye opening for me. I couldn't put it down--which says something. And it changed the way I think about the history of the Americas and the world. Regarding the person who claims that Mann criticizes environmentalists--nothing could be further from the truth. I am an ardent conservationist and am quoting Mann in my master's thesis. He discusses some very central controversies in conservation. For the person who was so outraged by the idea that some native peoples prefer to be called Indians--actually some do. And this may be more relevant in Spanish. While indio is an insult in some countries, there are native people in Colombia who refer to themselves as indios. I wasn't sure where the rage was coming from, but Mann was not incorrect. In addition, I would have to go back to the book, but I didn't interpret his portrayal of Holmberg as insulting. I thought that Mann actually spoke quite highly of him. There is much to like in this book, and maybe the fact that it can stir up so much controversy is part of that.

    21 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 30, 2011

    Footnotes are not displayed in text - huge problem for critical reader

    I found this book to be a very interesting read - particularly from the perspective of a biologist and professional conservationist. However one thing about the Nook e-version totally ticked me off. The notes, very important references to sources for some pretty controversial material, were NOT displayed in the text. That made it impossible to read, and as you go along, consider validity of the author's positions relative to the sources he felt supported them. There were references to some interesting Appendices made in the text, and there were asterisks linked to brief explanations included at the end of each chapter, but none of the text included reference notes. They were there, following page 410, seventy-eight pages of them, and you could link from them to the text page they were associated with, but not the line or statement there. Regardless, once at the end, to go back and try to integrate references into your thinking just doesn't work. If I were the author I'd be furious. As it is I just feel ripped off. B&A must do better than this!

    10 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2008

    Still Reading ...

    Wonderfully explained and organized. The wealth of data is amazing and the unbiasedness is welcomed.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2007

    WOW

    One would think that reading about so many stats would just put one to sleep, BUT it did just the opposite for me. To understand the advanced societies in the Americas for so many centuries before the arrival of European virus just boggled my mind. If you have any interest in our past this is a must read. Until this book my perspective of pre-Columbus America was the European version.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2007

    crashingly disappointing

    I had high hopes for Mann's interpretation especially reading this after Philbrick's Mayflower. With the exception of Part One, 90% of the book relates to South and Central America, and it almost reads as a topographical history or South America. I was 'expecting' more insight into Columbus and the North American tribes and their history, but I think people are getting caught up in the story. I found myself skipping chapters something I never do (well, there was a chapter on tortilla making).

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2006

    Food for thought...

    I have always thought the traditional history taught in schools is incorrect and lacking. But I don't think this book provides all the answers. I think Mann assumes quite a bit in some of his arguements and makes some claims that seem to be a stretch at best. But this is a good book and I think anyone interested in history should read it, just keep an open mind on some of the claims. Just because it is in a book does not make it true.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 8, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    A dense, interesting, history-packed book with a refreshing view of the Americas before Columbus.

    This was an interesting book, full of information I had never seen or heard before. The author writes very clearly and is easy to understand. Occasionally, the sections were so dense with information that I became a little lost and confused--I found it hard to keep up with all the Indian names--but other than that I enjoyed it.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2005

    Mann's Mistake

    Allan Holmberg - to whom Charles Mann attributes 'Holmberg's Mistake' - never argued anything to the effect of what Mann claims in his work on Bolivia. His dissertation at Yale, published as 'Nomads of the Long Bow' by the Smithsonian, was on the effects of hunger on forest dwellers who lived in fragmented groups due to historical contingencies. That Charles Mann elected to name a chapter of his book, 1491, ¿Holmberg¿s Mistake¿ shows nothing but that Mann never read the book. Holmberg, to the extent that his work addresses historical or archaeological questions at all, argues quite transparently that the Siriono were an ¿anomaly¿ and likely a ¿remnant of an ancient population that was exterminated, absorbed, or engulfed by more civilized invaders.¿ The mistake here is all Mann¿s. I would not argue that Mann's overall argument is incorrect but it is odd that he attempts to destroy the reputation of someone who never held the ideas attributed to him. Mann's representation approaches the unethical.

    3 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2013

    The paperback is $9.99 at Costco

    The paperback is $9.99 at Costco

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2006

    Half this book is just dandy!

    The rest, sadly, seems to be overly-PC journalistic obiter dicta one wonders if this chap was being paid by the word. Still, the current -- well, I suppose, science, if one can really call cultural anthropology any such thing -- is nicely summarized and the changes from the stuff that was 'official' and which has been suspect since the days of Franz Boas, is shown to be even more uncertain at best. The book drives yet another nail in the Smithsonian's ethnological coffin -- a good thing. A fascinating read, in any case.

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2014

    AP World History Review: While other people seem to have real


    AP World History Review:

    While other people seem to have really liked this book, I did not really like it. I thought it was not very interesting and very dry to read. I got very bored reading it and just wanted the book to be over. I felt like Mann was a lot more involved in the politics about who was wrong and right than he was actually about the topic. While some of his personal stories may have been interesting, after the millionth one, I was really tired of it. His round about way of describing things confused me because first he would talk about the wrong theory, then he would describe another theory but say that they weren’t true. Some of the things he said went against other ideas and I was really confused about what to think. While I liked the stuff about the actual culture of the different civilizations, for some reason I didn’t feel he made it very interesting. I also wish that Mann wrote more about the North American societies, because he didn’t talk about those very much.
    I also felt like Mann had a very negative view towards environmentalists and people who didn’t agree about how long people had been in America, but I understand why because that was against what he was trying to say. All of his stories though bored me and I felt like he was always criticizing the people that didn’t agree with him by saying that they were stupid, which isn’t very nice. I felt like he completed his purpose well though because he provided facts and data about these civilizations and how they knew these things, although I felt like the facts were confusing because he told lots of different ideas, but never fully explained which one was correct. To me, I felt like he completed his purpose though by showing how humans are older than we thought and that Americans have been here longer and are more civilized and awesome than we thought. This wasn’t my favorite book though because Mann’s writing style bothered me though, although that in itself is very biased of me. The places where he actually described the civilizations felt a lot like a textbook and I am kinda tired of textbooks, while the rest of the book felt like an autobiography and a book about how the scientists/archaeologists/historians knew all of the facts. I do not recommend this book for other students, people with a short attention span, or people who aren’t that interested in how they know these things, but I would recommend this book for a person who really likes history or wants to become an archaeologist.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2012

    I am fortunate enough to have a first edition of this book. Whi

    I am fortunate enough to have a first edition of this book. While I don't agree with everything that he wrote, the man made me THINK.

    The history itself is interesting and presented well. The most valuable service that this book does, though, is to clearly point out that more than a few generally accepted "facts" are really theories.

    BTW, "1493" is a good read, too.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2011

    Interesting and thought provoking

    Great read

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 6, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent Synthesis

    The author does an excellent job of bringing together various histories of the Americas to show that the "New World" simply was not what we have traditionally been taught.<BR/>I would like to see him or someone else now do a similarly heavily-mass-marketed work on the growing body of archaeological, historical and epigraphical evidence which suggests that the Americas were, in fact, explored by Europeans and others long before Columbus.<BR/>Unfortuntely, heretofore this subject has been deemed by mainstream academia to be the realm of quackery. This is a tragedy and is based more on mainstream academia's instinct of self-preservation than any search for the truth.<BR/>In any event, perhaps 1491 will one day be seen as an opening salvo in the effort to bring such questions to the forefront of scholarship. After all, it is not just that, as Mann points out, Native Americans's societies were far more complex and larger than traditionally thought, they were also very likely far more akin to what we would today call "multicultural", as well.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2008

    Superbly written

    Who were the first people on North and South America and how did they arrive here? A subject some don't care about but for us who do, its truly a mystery. The author chose a subject knowing how many would disagree with him but he came through with material to back his ideas up. Its interesting in that we can use this to save ourselves from destruction since so many before us did the same things were doing and didn't learn. To save our planet from our own wrath and be the ones who can at least say we learned from the past. What civilization will come next if we don't learn now? This is what our children have to look forward to.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2007

    I feel fortunate about the information Mann put toghether in this book

    I'm impressed with the information in this book. I feel very fortunate Charles C. Mann put toghether this information. There's one thing I strongly disagree with Mann on this book-his claim that some Natives prefer to be called Indian instead of 'Native Americans' is at most a 'stupidaggine' 'absurdity' as the that name was concocted by ignorance! The very ignorance of Christoforo Colombo or 'Cristobal Colon' who thought he had landed in India. Why do we continue to perpetuate ignorance is unknown to me. Unless, of course, immigrants from other lands now want to claim the title for themselves! I'm sure it wouldn't matter now, they took everything else already from Native Peoples... I was amazed when I watched an interview with Dick Wolf by Tavis Smiley show, on PBS, He claims the Smithsonian as a source for Political correctness and the term Indian for 'Native American'. He surely jumped quicker than flees onto the back side of a quaking duck with American Indian. That name was concocted by ignorance, the very ignorance of Christoforo Colombo or 'Cristobal Colon' who thought he had landed in India. The fact that some Native American tribes 'which does NOT mean tribes in the US/Canada-but the Americas' call themselves American Indian, is part of the same filth Ale¿ Hrdlièka and the Smithsonian spoused and actively carried out in hopes to keep out the great nations that existed and that had created a much more advanced systems, cities, than in Europe and other places by the 14 century! In fact, they were so advanced in mathematics, for example, the first culture to use zero where the Native Americans, in the South of Mexico, Guatemala, throughout Central America and South America! I¿m sure he will claim Native American for him now! The Americas, or the land of the early light, as Native Americans called these lands, was the last to be discovered and we have just started to learn about the GRAND cultures that existed here, before the Spaniars ravaged the land and its people in 1492. And then, almost 2 centuries later, came the Britons 'pilgrims' who did more damaged to Native Peoples in less than 100 years, than the Spaniards did in over 400 years. The Spaniards intermerried with the Natives, the Britons killed most of them, or uprooted them from their land to inhospitable lands, far away from their homes.

    1 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2013

    Thought provoking view of pre-columbian history of the Americas; worth reading

    -

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2013

    The book 1491 by Charles C. Mann provides a wonderful and inter


    The book 1491 by Charles C. Mann provides a wonderful and interesting look into the Americas

    before Columbus. In the book, Charles Mann answers long asked questions about ancient America, from the first Thanksgiving to the time when the first Americans crossed over from Asia on the Bering Strait. (This theory is also a hot subject for debate in this book.) Overall I immensely enjoyed this book as it provided me with answers to questions I have been asking myself for several years. Such as whether ancient Americans really were here before the Asians crossed the Bering Strait. I would recommend this book for people who have a yearning for history and enjoy ancient cultures.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2013

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    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 8, 2013

    This is a must read for anyone who wants to have a glimpse into

    This is a must read for anyone who wants to have a glimpse into life before Europeans. It is a shame what has been lost. This book dragged a bit in the middle but overall was an excellent source of information.

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