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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

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Title: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus  
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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Author Charles C. Mann
Genre non-fiction
Publisher Knopf
Publication date
Pages xii, 465 p. : ill., maps (1st edn.)
OCLC 56632601
970.01/1 22
LC Class E61 .M266 2005
Followed by 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
An indicative map of the prominent political entities extant in the Western Hemisphere c. 1491, as presented in 1491

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is a 2005 non-fiction book by American author and science writer Charles C. Mann about the pre-Columbian Americas. The book argues that a combination of recent findings in different fields of research suggests that human populations in the Western Hemisphere—that is, the indigenous peoples of the Americas—were more numerous, had arrived earlier, were more sophisticated culturally, and controlled and shaped the natural landscape to a greater extent than scholars had previously thought.

He notes that two of the six independent centers of civilization in the world arose in the Americas: the first, Norte Chico or Caral-Supe, in present-day northern Peru; and that of Mesoamerica in what is now Central America.

Book summary

The past 140 years have seen scientific revolutions in many fields, including demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, genetics, image analysis, palynology, molecular biology, biochemistry, and soil science. As new evidence has accumulated, longstanding views about the pre-Columbian world have been challenged and reexamined. Although there is no consensus, and Mann acknowledges controversies, he asserts that the general trend among scientists is to acknowledge:

1. (a) population levels in the Native Americans were probably higher than traditionally believed among scientists and closer to the number estimated by "high counters";

(b) humans probably arrived in the Americas earlier than thought, over the course of multiple waves of migration to the New World (not solely by the Bering land bridge over a relatively short period of time);

2. The level of cultural advancement and the settlement range of humans was higher and broader than previously imagined; and

3. The New World was not a wilderness at the time of European contact, but an environment which the indigenous peoples had altered for thousands of years for their benefit, mostly with fire.

These three main foci (origins/population, culture, and environment) form the basis for three parts of the book.


Weaving in personal anecdotes with recent scholarship, Mann attempts to refute the thesis that "Native Americans came across the Bering Strait 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, and they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation the continents remain mostly wilderness."

Part One: Numbers from Nowhere

Mann first tackles New England in the 17th century. He disagrees with the popular idea that European technologies were superior to those of Indians. Guns were a prime example. The Indians considered them little more than "noisemakers", and concluded they were more difficult to aim than arrows. Noted colonist John Smith of the southern Jamestown colony noted that "the awful [gun] could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly." Indian technology was more impressive, such as moccasins, which were more comfortable and sturdy than the boots Europeans wore, and were preferred by most during that era because their padding offered a more silent approach to warfare. Canoes are another example of superior technology of the Indians: they could be rowed faster and were more maneuverable than any small European boats.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Henry F. Dobyns researched records in the central cathedral in Lima, Peru. He found that upon European arrival, there were far more burials than baptisms recorded. "The Spaniards arrived and the Indians died—in huge numbers and incredible rates." By marking the devastating social and cultural effects from the mortality caused by new infectious diseases among Native Americans, Dobyns changed the way pre-Columbus America was regarded. Historians have concluded that disease was more important in the Native American decline than warfare or other actions by Europeans.

Mann explores the fall of the Inca Empire, and attempted to assess their population compared to the armies of conquistadors, such as Francisco Pizarro. He notes the work of Heather Lechtmen, who concluded that Europeans took metals and optimized their value by using them for their "hardness, strength, toughness, and sharpness,” while Indian cultures such as the Inca used metals for “plasticity, malleability, and toughness". Simply put, Europeans used metals to produce materially resilient arms and assorted weapons ("swords and armor, rifles and cannons"), whereas the natives had used metal for refined decoration and the creation of arts and craft. Although both cultures had access to and made use of metal, it was for differing purposes: "Europeans used metal for tools [while] Andean societies primarily used it as a token of wealth, power, and community affiliation."

Europeans had thought their use of the horse gave them advantage but, in cases such as the Inca, the stepped roads of their settlements were impassable to horses. The Inca did not maximize their use of anti-horse inventions to stop the Spanish intruders. The Inca Empire collapsed because by the time Europeans arrived, smallpox and other epidemics had already swept through cities, due mostly to the natives' lack of immunity to Eurasian diseases. Dobyns concluded, "[T]he Inca were not defeated by steel and horses, but by disease and factionalism", referring to the civil war that came before clashes with the Spanish. After reaching these conclusions, Dobyns became a "High Counter" (those who thought the number of Native Americans was close to 100 million), estimating that more people lived in the Americas at the time of European encounter than previously thought.

The Aztecs were also more advanced than previously conceived. Their societies had tlamatini, analogous to the Greek "thinker-teacher". "[T]he disintegration of Native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole."

Critics of the High Counters included David Henige, who wrote Numbers from Nowhere (1998). He questioned whether it was possible to "invent" millions of people whose existence could not be proved. Yet "Low Counters" commit the "intellectual sin of arguing from silence".

Carbon dating, developed in 1949, could be used to archeologists to determine how old bones were. The Clovis culture in New Mexico was one of the first to be assessed using carbon dating. The culture first appeared between 13,500 and 12,900 years ago, which Mann said was "just after the only time period in which migration from Siberia seemed to have been possible." Since that dating, archaeologists have found evidence indicating that Paleo-Indians were present in the Americas at earlier dates, and the battle between High Counters and Low Counters has continued.

Part Two: Very Old Bones

Evidence linked to the Lagoa Santa skeletons uncovered in caves in Brazil, proved that Indians could have been living there for many thousands of years. Genetic testing has confirmed that Indians in this area come from the same haplogroup as natives of Siberia. Scientists confirmed "that Indians and Siberians share common ancestry".

Agriculture is another focus of this section, as Mann explores Andean and Mesoamerican cultures. The agricultural development of maize was significant for the rise in crop surpluses, populations and complex cultures. Indians basically bred maize from scratch, as it had "no wild ancestor"—unlike wheat, barley, and oats, which have wild relatives which can be harvested and eaten, maize's nearest relatives, the teosintes, are essentially not edible. Maize was grown on a milpa, an intricate system of planting multiple crops in one area that would be "nutritionally and environmentally complementary", and also promoted "long-term success". The development of maize was a pivotal part of Mesoamerican life that promoted high culture in civilizations such as the Olmec.

Evidence that some Mesoamerican cultures used calendars and developed the wheel proved the complexity of their societies. They used the wheel only for small toys, rather than in larger ways for transport or production of energy. Mann notes, "Every society missed out on obvious technologies." Mesoamericans did not have the luxury of "stealing" inventions from others, since they were geographically isolated in comparison to the cultures of Eurasia. They also lacked the domesticated large animals. In some populated areas, the land was typically wet and boggy, thus limiting further advancement from the invention of the wheel.

Part Three: Landscape With Figures

In his third section, Mann attempts a synthesis. He focuses on the Maya, whose population growth was about as rapid as its decline. Why did they disappear? Sylvanus Morley gave the best-known theory:

"the Maya collapsed because they overshot the carrying capacity of their environment. They exhausted their resource base, began to die of starvation and thirst, and fled their cities 'en masse', leaving them as silent warnings of the perils of ecological hubris."
This pattern is common among many Indian cultures.

Mann provided the growing evidence against the myth that Indians were not active in transforming their lands. Most Indians shaped their environment with fire: it was used to burn shrubs and trees, opening an area to sunlight to create grasslands, thereby benefitting plants that need sun, while inhibiting others. Burning encourages abundance of certain animals they hunted, while discouraging others. The 20th-century environmental historian William Cronon, who studied Native American practices in New England, explained that "people accustomed to keeping domesticated animals [Europeans] lacked the conceptual tools to recognize that the Indians were practicing a more distant kind of husbandry of their own." Indians domesticated fewer animals and cultivated plant life differently from their European counterparts, but quite intensively.

Europeans held biased and often racist views of the indigenous people, in addition to not speaking a common language with them. This fact led to people being misled with the result that they misunderstood Indians unjustly. In Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, Betty J. Meggers suggests the "law of environmental limitation of culture", meaning they "reached their optimal level of environment". Whatever Indians did before slash and burn the logic goes, had to have worked thanks to the acres of healthy forest seen before Europeans arrived.

Mann concludes that Indians were a "keystone species", one that "affects the survival and abundance of many other species". By the time the Europeans arrived in number to supplant the indigenous population in the Americas, the previous dominant people (Indians) had been almost completely eliminated, mostly by disease. As it killed many Indians, their control of the environment was disrupted, as were their societies. After the Indians died, animal populations, such as that of the buffalo, increased immensely. "Because they (Europeans) did not burn the land with the same skill and frequency and need as its previous occupants, the forests grew thicker." The world discovered by Christopher Columbus was to begin to change from that point on, so Columbus "was also one of the last to see it in pure form".

Mann concludes that we must look to the past to write the future. "Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens."


A 2005 New York Times book review stated that the book's approach is

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 of their conquerors. And rarely is he less than enthralling.[1]


  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Knopf, 2005 ISBN 1-4000-3205-9.
  • 1491: The Americas Before Columbus. ISBN 1-86207-876-9 European edition. Published in Europe by Granta Books on 6 November 2006.
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Vintage, 2011 ISBN 978-1-4000-3205-1


In 2011, Mann published his sequel, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. It explores the results of the European colonization of the Americas, a topic begun in Alfred Crosby's 1972 work, The Columbian Exchange, which examined exchanges of plants, animals, diseases and technologies after European encounter with the Americas. Mann added much new scholarship that has been developed in the 40 years since that book was published.

See also


  1. ^ Baker, Kevin (October 2005). 1491': Vanished Americans"'". New York Times. Retrieved 8 December 2011. 

Further reading

  • Charles Mann, "1491", from The Atlantic Monthly, March 2002. Original article that inspired the book.
  • "An interview with Charles C. Mann" (Part 1, Part 2), from Indian Country Today December 20, 2005.
  • "A Conversation with Charles C. Mann", by
  • Paper challenges 1491 Amazonian population theories, Argues, contra Mann, that the activities of pre-Columbian Amazonians did not reshape or "build up" the Amazon into its current state. Accessed August 18, 2008.
  • University of Gothenburg (17 October 2010). "New discoveries concerning pre-Columbian settlements in the Amazon". EurekAlert!. Archived from the original on 10 November 2010. Retrieved 10 November 2010. Together with Brazilian colleagues, archaeologists from the University of Gothenburg have found the remains of approximately 90 settlements in an area South of the city of Santarém, in the Brazilian part of the Amazon. 
  • 1491 By CHARLES C. MANN


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