Since reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, I’ve been interested in life in the Americas before Columbus. Diamond’s book makes it clear that the Americas weren’t the sparsely populated lands so often depicted in history books. In 1491, Charles C. Mann expands upon that idea by describing Indian civilizations, exploring the question of population numbers, and explaining how Indians created complex cities that rivaled and even surpassed those in Europe at the time. (Mann uses the term Indian throughout the book when talking about the indigenous population of the Americas, a decision that he explains in one of the appendices.)
Mann opens the book with a discussion of what he calls Holmberg’s mistake, the belief that the Indians had “floated changelessly through the millennia until 1492.” His objective is to offer a more well-rounded picture of the Americas, one that acknowledges how Indian civilizations changed over time and how politics, technological innovations, and environmental changes were involved in the various cultural shifts.
Some of the most interesting material is taken from descriptions of Europeans’ first encounters with Indians. For example, a missionary to the Huron noted that the Indians thought the French possessed “little intelligence in comparison to themselves,” and the Spanish were astonished when they saw the city of Technochtitlan, a city that was bigger than Paris and featured ornate architecture, botanical gardens, and clean streets.
Whenever I read a book like this, I end up feeling overwhelmed with facts. There is so much I don’t know, and there’s a lot in this book that I know I’ve already forgotten. I think that, at times, Mann jumps around too much in history and geography, and it was easy to lose track of when and where specific civilizations lived. But I do feel that, after reading this book, I have a better sense of what some of the issues and questions are when it comes to pre-1492 America.
Where there is controversy regarding population numbers, Indian technology, agriculture, and other matters, Mann is generally fair and offers the evidence for both sides. At times, this makes for tedious he said/she said reading, but I appreciated knowing how little is actually known for certain and how new discoveries are still happening and causing archaeologists and historians to revisit old assumptions. History has already happened, it’s true, but new discoveries are remaking the history we thought we understood. This book gives a very clear picture of how this history gets rewritten and is a good introduction to the world of the American Indian.