Review of “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”

Cover of "1491"Charles C. Mann would like to let you know that almost everything you know about the Americas before European contact is wrong in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Amazon link). Mann is a journalist who, after learning bits and pieces of new research into pre-contact American history, decided to summarize these findings. He draws from history, archeology, anthropology, ecology, genetics, linguistics, and many other fields to present a detailed but high-level overview of this untold history.

The central point of the book is to rebut various misunderstandings about the history of Native Americans: that they had no history, primarily, but also that the continent was a pristine wilderness only lightly touched by human cultures which had not progressed beyond hunting/gathering or at best neolithic agriculture, and whose technological backwardness doomed them to conquest. Such an account is accepted even by “sympathetic” students of Indian1 history, but it’s all wrong. Besides refuting these factual errors, he also refutes a thematic error: the portrayal of Indians as passive recipients of European actions, either as enemies or victims. Mann shows the the first peoples of the Americas were active in history, and highlights ways in which contact between the Old World and the New was a two-way street. Continue reading