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New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents


Tradicionalmente, nos han enseñado que los primeros habitantes de América entraron en el continente atravesando el estrecho de Bering doce mil años antes de la llegada de Colón. Se daba por supuesto que eran bandas reducidas y nómadas, y que vivían sin alterar la tierra. Pero, durante los últimos treinta años, los arqueólogos y antropólogos han demostrado que estas suposiciones, igual que otras que también se sostenían desde hacía tiempo, eran erróneas.

En un libro tan asombroso como persuasivo, Charles C. Mann revela conclusiones tan novedosas como que en 1491 había más habitantes en América que en el continente europeo; que algunas ciudades, como Tenochtitlán, tenían una población mayor que cualquier ciudad contemporánea de la época, además de contar con agua corriente, hermosos jardines botánicos y calles de una limpieza inmaculada; que la prosperidad de las primeras ciudades americanas de alcanzó antes de que los egipcios construyeran las pirámides; que los indios precolombinos de México cultivaban el maíz mediante un procedimiento tan sofisticado que la revista Science lo ha calificado recientemente como «la primera hazaña, y tal vez la mayor, en el campo de la ingeniería genética»; o que los nativos americanos transformaron la tierra de forma tan completa que los europeos llegaron a un continente cuyo paisaje ya estaba modelado por los seres humanos.

Charles C. Mann arroja nueva luz sobre métodos empleados para llegar a estas nuevas visiones de la América precolombina y sobre el modo en que éstas afectan a nuestra concepción de la historia y a nuestra comprehensión del medio ambiente. 1491 es un relato apasionante de diversas investigaciones y revelaciones científicas de preimera magnitud que cambiarán radicalmente nuestra forma de ver la América precolombina.


Why Billington Survived


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.


Consider Tisquantum, the “friendly Indian” of the textbook. More than likely Tisquantum was not the name he was given at birth. In that part of the Northeast, tisquantum referred to rage, especially the rage of manitou, the world-suffusing spiritual power at the heart of coastal Indians’ religious beliefs. When Tisquantum approached the Pilgrims and identified himself by that sobriquet, it was as if he had stuck out his hand and said, Hello, I’m the Wrath of God. No one would lightly adopt such a name in contemporary Western society. Neither would anyone in seventeenth-century indigenous society. Tisquantum was trying to project something.

Tisquantum was not an Indian. True, he belonged to that category of people whose ancestors had inhabited the Western Hemisphere for thousands of years. And it is true that I refer to him as an Indian, because the label is useful shorthand; so would his descendants, and for much the same reason. But “Indian” was not a category that Tisquantum himself would have recognized, any more than the inhabitants of the same area today would call themselves “Western Hemisphereans.” Still less would Tisquantum have claimed to belong to “Norumbega,” the label by which most Europeans then referred to New England. (“New England” was coined only in 1616.) As Tisquantum’s later history made clear, he regarded himself first and foremost as a citizen of Patuxet, a shoreline settlement halfway between what is now Boston and the beginning of Cape Cod.

Patuxet was one of the dozen or so settlements in what is now eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island that comprised the Wampanoag confederation. In turn, the Wampanoag were part of a tripartite alliance with two other confederations: the Nauset, which comprised some thirty groups on Cape Cod; and the Massachusett, several dozen villages clustered around Massachusetts Bay. All of these people spoke variants of Massachusett, a member of the Algonquian language family, the biggest in eastern North America at the time. (Massachusett was the name both of a language and of one of the groups that spoke it.) In Massachusett, the name for the New England shore was the Dawnland, the place where the sun rose. The inhabitants of the Dawnland were the People of the First Light.

Table of Contents

List of Maps

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

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


From the Hardcover edition.
Charles C. Mann|Author Q&A

About Charles C. Mann

Charles C. Mann - 1491

Photo © J. D. Sloan

Charles C. Mann, a correspondent for The Atlantic, Science, and Wired, has written for Fortune, The New York Times, Smithsonian, Technology Review, Vanity Fair, and The Washington Post, as well as for the TV network HBO and the series Law & Order. A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, he is the recipient of writing awards from the American Bar Association, the American Institute of Physics, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Lannan Foundation. His 1491 won the National Academies Communication Award for the best book of the year.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with


Q: Although this book had its origins in an Atlantic Monthly cover story, what was it that first drew you to the subject?

A: Two things, I think. More than twenty years ago, I wrote an article for Science (I’m a correspondent for the journal's news division) that involved going to the Yucatan peninsula. I visited some of the Maya ruins there and like so many other people was absolutely fascinated. I’d just spent two years living in Rome, and I was struck by how much more extensive—but equally finely built—the Maya ruins were. I also was astonished by how different the aesthetic system was—the vertiginous staircases, the corbel arches, the huge reliefs, etc.

This dovetailed with something else. The summer before seventh grade, my parents moved from the suburbs of Detroit to the Pacific Northwest, an area where the presence of Native Americans seemed much more evident. I was fascinated by the idea that very different peoples had lived in the area in the not too distant past, and that their descendants were still living nearby. But it wasn’t until I got to Yucatan that the penny dropped and I grasped, really and truly, that when Columbus landed he had stumbled across an entire **hemisphere** full of people whose cultures had nothing to do with Europe or Asia. Half the world!

It was kind of a Homer Simpson-ish “d’oh!” moment for me. So was realizing that I knew practically nothing about this entire half of the world, and my teachers in school had known practically nothing about it. I decided I would try to find out more when I could.

Q: The book argues that most of what we learned at school about the first people to inhabit the Western Hemisphere is wrong. (We now know that Indians were in the Americas far longer and in far greater numbers than previously believed.) What do you think is the most startling aspect of this re-examination by scientists?

A: As I was writing the book, friends and acquaintances asked me about what I was working on. Usually, they seemed most surprised when I told them about the extent to which Indians modified the environment. We’re taught in school—or, at any rate, I was taught in school—that for all intents and purposes the Americas were a wilderness in 1492, and that is simply not true.

When I tell people that Indians created large chunks of the prairies the pioneers saw by burning down the forests that covered them, they’re usually pretty surprised. But you can look in the colonial accounts yourself. Most of those nice deciduous forests that now carpet Ohio and Illinois and the Texas Hill Country didn’t exist 400 years ago—they were savannas. My favorite example, though, is the Colca Valley in Peru, which is like South America’s Grand Canyon, except that it’s much deeper. The big difference is that most of the canyon is full of agricultural terraces that date back as much as a thousand years. Imagine terracing the Grand Canyon!

Q: You write that as the native people have disappeared, the distinction today between anthropologists and archaelogists has blurred. Are there problems with that?

A: Not necessarily. It simply means that cultural anthropologists (who study present-day societies) need to be well informed about their subjects' usually turbulent recent history, and archaeologists (who study past societies) should try to be as informed as possible about what the descendants of their subjects are doing.

Q: What do you think of the recent scientific study of the “Kennewick Man” who’s thought to be 9,000 years old? One reason he may be significant—and this is part of your book—is that he furthers the idea that rather than migrating by foot across the Bering Straits 13,000 years ago, many peoples probably traveled by boat. How did this work and how accepted is this theory now?

A: The conventional picture—that paleo-Indians (the ancestors of today’s Indians) walked across the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago—has been under persistent attack for a couple decades. One problem is that after walking across the strait, which scientists believe was surprisingly hospitable, the paleo-Indians would then have run into the 2,000-mile-long ice sheets that then covered Canada and the northern United States. For a while, geologists believed that the sheets partially melted at just the right time, creating an ice-free corridor that the paleo-Indians walked through. But now the evidence for this corridor seems pretty weak. So how did the paleo-Indians get here?

A currently intriguing theory is that they got here by small boat, skipping along temperate pockets on the shoreline. The pockets were due to the Japanese Current, which still warms coastal British Columbia. There isn't much direct evidence for this idea, but researchers are increasingly interested in it, because it is beginning to seem like the only plausible answer.

Kennewick Man may help answer a related but different question. There is some evidence suggesting that the Americas were settled in as many as five separate waves, with today’s Indians being in the second or third wave. It is possible that examining Kennewick Man could give some evidence for or against this notion. He might have been in an earlier wave, for instance, which would mean that he was not directly ancestral to modern Indians.

Incidentally, there has been speculation that Kennewick Man was from Europe, largely based on an early reconstruction of his face that made him look a bit like the actor Patrick Stewart. More recent reconstructions based on better data have eliminated that resemblance. And in any case there is no evidence that I am aware of that solidly suggests a link to Europe—and lots of evidence against it, beginning with the fact that Indians are genetically linked with the peoples of Siberia.

Q: Tenochtitlan, the Mexica (Aztec) capital, was more than twice as big as any European city—as much as six times more populous than London, Rome or Madrid—yet the arrival of Europeans created one of the worst disasters in history, with as much as 90 percent of its population dead within a century. What killed so many people?

A: One of the biggest changes in historians’ understanding since the 1960s is their knowledge of the overwhelming role played by epidemic disease. Most of the really bad epidemic diseases—smallpox, measles, influenza—were originally diseases that afflicted domestic animals. Measles, for example, is a variant of rinderpest, a cow disease. Europeans lived in such close contact with their farm animals that slightly mutated forms of their diseases were able to jump the species barrier. By a quirk of history, the Americas had no domesticable animals to speak of—the dog and the llama, in the Andes, are the main exceptions. So Indians were what epidemiologists call “virgin soil”—their immune systems were utterly unprepared for these diseases when Europeans brought them over.

The results were ghastly beyond imagining. It is widely believed that between 1500 and 1600 nine out of ten Native Americans died. Most of these people had never even seen Europeans—the diseases raced into the interior ahead of the English, French, and Spanish. It was the greatest demographic calamity in the history of the world.

Disease, more than anything else, let Europeans win the hemisphere. Hernan Cortes, who conquered Tenochtitlan and the Mexica (Aztec) empire, is a good example. In what is now called the noche triste (sad night), the Mexica drove him from the city, killing three-quarters of his force and most of his horses. After fleeing, Cortes supposedly collapsed in tears at the ruin of his hopes. The only reason he was able to make good on his determination to come back is that some of his Spanish reinforcements inadvertently brought smallpox with them. The epidemic killed at least a third of the city's inhabitants, including the Mexica leader and much of his army.

Q: Amazonian Indians knew how to farm the rain forest without destroying it to the point where scientists are now studying their process today. Is there any hope this will work and how successful where they back then?

A: Today when we think of farming we imagine plowed fields and large swathes of grain. The inhabitants of the Amazon came up with entirely different ways of farming. To begin with, they sheltered the fragile soil of the tropical forest from the punishing sun and rain by growing most of their crops as trees—two-thirds of Amazonian crop species, according to one survey, were trees. It was a kind of agroforestry that was unlike anything in Europe.

Equally or more important, they developed techniques to improve the usually poor tropical soils. The Amazon is dotted with patches of terra preta do Indios—Indian black earth—which has kept its vitality for generations. A Brazilian-American-German collaboration of geographers, soil scientists, archaeologists, and agronomists is now trying to understand the processes by which Indians created terra preta, and hopes to apply these techniques to other poor soils in the tropics.

Q: Why do some criticize the ideas put forth here? On the right, detractors charge that they discredit European culture by inflating the scale of native loss here. On the left, environmentalists want to believe that America in 1491 was “an Edenic land . . . untrammeled by man.”

A: I think both of these complaints derive from a peculiarly contemporary compulsion to see everything in red-state, blue-state terms. To begin with, neither Indians or Europeans then had a modern conception of disease. Nor did they have any real ability to prevent the epidemics. In general, they both believed that sickness was a reflection of the will of God. Most of the deaths, as I mentioned before, occurred among peoples who had never seen Europeans—which is to say that Europeans didn't even know that they were occurring. So to claim that the epidemics magnify the culpability of Europeans seems kind of naïve to me. Don't get me wrong—Europeans did lots of bad things to Indians. I’m just not sure how useful it is to think of the epidemics in the same breath.

Similarly, the left tends not to like hearing that Indians heavily managed nature—they did not “tread lightly on the land.” Environmentalists fear that admitting that the Amazon forest was largely created by human action—that much of it is, in a sense, a whole lot of old orchards—somehow gives the green light to the bulldozers. I don’t see it. Indians were, by and large, quite good land managers. Rather than pretending they were not, we should study their techniques. Some of them may be useful to us, as we face the problem of managing the land wisely.

Q: You write that between 1616 and 1619, an epidemic—possibly viral hepatitus—killed 90% of the people in coastal New England . . . in just 3 years! How did the living survive with such a crippling loss of life?

A: It was devastating, of course. How could it not be? There is pretty clear evidence that the overwhelming and inexplicable mortality plunged native society into a kind of spiritual crisis. Had their gods failed them? Were they being punished? It was one reason that so many Indians were interested in learning about Christianity.

Something similar happened to Europe after the Black Death, which shook Europeans’ faith in the Church. Countless schismatic movements emerged in the aftermath. Many historians believe that one long-term consequence was the emergence of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

Q: You say that, if not for Pizarro and the Spanish, the Inkas “might have created a monolithic culture as enduring as China.” What specifically prevented that from happening?

A: Epidemic disease was a major factor. The same plague of smallpox that overwhelmed Tenochtitlan—the epidemic that gave the Mexica empire to Cortes—swept through Central America and into the Andes. I know I’m sounding like a broken record, but that’s because the epidemics were mind-bogglingly important in American history. This epidemic arrived in about 1525 and killed perhaps half of the empire’s population, including the Inka emperor, his chosen successor, and much of the court. The result was a devastating civil war for the throne—ruin upon ruin. Pizarro, a very lucky man, came right after the war. A brilliant politician, he was able to play off the two factions against each other and won early, devastating victories from which the Inka never recovered.

Q: Were you surprised to learn about the relative sophistication of various tribes, such as the Olmec who may have had a 365-day calendar and invented the number zero as early as 750 BC (but didn’t use the wheel...)?

A: Yes, I was, at first. Later I’ve come to realize that cultures develop wildly unevenly, and what comes quick and obvious to one is slow and mysterious to another. Europeans, for instance, knew all about true arches, but the Olmec didn’t. Indians understood the engineering principles of suspension bridges centuries before Europeans—for a while conquistadors refused to cross Indian suspension bridges, because they couldn’t understand how they could stand up without anything supporting them (must be black magic, the Spaniards thought). The Olmec seem to have invented the zero by at least the time of Christ and maybe much earlier, whereas Europeans didn’t use it until 1700—Descartes didn’t know about it, for instance. On the one hand, you think, how could Indians not have used the wheel? On the other, you think, how could Descartes—in the running for world’s smartest person—not have understood that zero was a number?

Q: Why do you think this is all finally coming to light now and not earlier?

A: I’m not sure, but I’ll give you my guess. Scholars of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th wrote at a time when European nations were flattening everything before their path. It was natural to assume that non-white peoples were history's losers, unimportant in the scheme of things. After the Second World War, in which a nonwhite nation (Japan) proved a difficult adversary, researchers took stock. And then when the great European empires crumbled, they began to look again at the histories of these other societies.

But even then the new techniques necessary to understand some of these ancient histories were mainly confined to archaeology, geography, ecology, and other fields. Few researchers crossed the disciplinary boundaries, so new knowledge in one field didn’t percolate to other fields. The first important articles about the devastating impact of the epidemics appeared in the 1960s, but they were in journals like Current Anthropology and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, and history textbook-writers didn't see them. Now, at last, some of the disciplinary barriers are coming down.

Q: How long did the research for this book take and is there a next project for you yet?

A: In a way, I’ve been working on this book off and on since my trip to Yucatan. But I only seriously began collecting material in the early 1990s, when I realized that somebody should write a book about this stuff. I only dared imagine writing that book myself in 1998 or so. As for a next project, I have one in mind, but I don’t want to jinx it by talking prematurely.

From the Hardcover edition.



“A journalistic masterpiece.”
—The New York Review of Books

“Marvelous. . . . A sweeping portrait of human life in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. . . . A remarkably engaging writer.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Fascinating. . . . A landmark of a book that drops ingrained images of colonial American into the dustbin, one after the other.”
—The Boston Globe

“A ripping, man-on-the-ground tour of a world most of us barely intuit. . . . An exhilarating shift in perspective. . . . 1491 erases our myth of a wilderness Eden. It replaces that fallacy with evidence of a different genesis, exciting and closer to true.”
—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Mann tells a powerful, provocative and important story. . . . 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 Book World

“Engagingly written and utterly absorbing. . . . Part detective story, part epic and part tragedy.”
—The Miami Herald

“Provocative. . . . A Jared Diamond-like volley that challenges prevailing thinking about global development. Mann has chronicled an important shift in our vision of world development, one out young children could end up studying in their text books when they reach junior high.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Marvelous. . . . A revelation. . . . Our concept of pure wilderness untouched by grubby human hands must now be jettisoned.”
—The New York Sun

“Monumental. . . . Mann slips in so many fresh, new interpretations of American history that it all adds up to a deeply subversive work.”

“Concise and brilliantly entertaining. . . . Reminiscent of John McPhee's eloquence with scientific detail.”
—Los Angeles Times

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Marvelous. . . . A sweeping portrait of human life in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. . . . A remarkably engaging writer.”
The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about 1491, Charles Mann’s compelling and wide-ranging look at the variety, density, and sophistication of the cultures in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of Columbus.

About the Guide

1491 is a groundbreaking study that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492, and a necessary book for understanding the long, remarkable story of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

Traditionally, Americans have been taught that the ancestors of the people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere at the time of Columbus’s landing crossed the Bering Strait thirteen thousand years ago, existed mainly in small, nomadic bands, and lived so lightly on the land that the Americas were, for all practical purposes, still a vast wilderness. But in fact, in 1491 there may well have been more people living in the Americas than in Europe, many of them in urban complexes bigger and more sophisticated than London or Paris. Older, too: Indian cities were thriving before the Egyptians built the great pyramids. Native people of the Americas developed ways of breeding corn and using the land that were far ahead of other civilizations. In the Amazon, Indians learned how to farm the rain forest without destroying it–a process scientists are studying today in the hope of reviving the practice. 1491 is full of new knowledge about the pre-Columbian Americas that will utterly change readers’ visions of the past.

About the Author

Charles C. Mann is a correspondent for Science and The Atlantic Monthly and has co written 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 twice selected for both The Best American Science Writing and The Best American Science and Nature Writing. He lives with his wife and their children in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Discussion Guides

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?

Suggested Readings

Colin G. Calloway: One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark; Michael D. Coe, Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs; William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England; Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900—1900; Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300—1850; John Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas; Betty J. Meggers, Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise; Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown; Neal Salisbury, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500—1643; Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War; Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life; James Wilson, The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America; Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: 500 Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas.

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