08 April 2012

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

This book is full of interesting anecdotes and observations that would be separately bloggable, but I want to concentrate on the work as a whole, and why I've added it to my list of recommended books.

Despite the title, the book is not about a single year.  1491 is used as a cutting point for defining the "precontact" Americas (pre-Columbian/European contact).   Charles C. Mann is not an archaeologist; he is a scientific journalist who has previously written about medical science and physics.  Here he synthesizes known information about the prehistory of North and South America and the changes that ensued after Europeans arrived.

For a reasonable summary of the book, you can browse the article he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly on the same subject back in 2002.  I'm going to focus on Chapter 10, which effectively debunks the popular myth that North American in particular was a "pristine wilderness" when the Europeans arrived.

Two months ago I reviewed and excerpted Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (University of Chicago Press, 2009), which detailed what Europeans found in North America:
"The woods abound with acorns for feeding hogs and with venison. There is considerable fish in the rivers, good tillage land; here is, especially, free coming and going, without fear of the naked natives of the country..."  Magnificent chestnut oaks, which these turkeys had wisely chosen as a roost, often rose sixty feet before there were any branches. So, while it’s easy to be impressed by the great tracts of forest carpeting the ridges and valleys of the Appalachians today, we should remember that these forests are nothing like the precolonial forests. Those first explorers found themselves walking through a natural cathedral whose green roof arched fifty or more feet above their heads…”
Mann's point in 1491 is that this was not even remotely a "pristine" environment unmodified by humans.  Instead, what the awe-struck Europeans found was a world that had been managed for millennia by Native Americas:
A principal tool was fire, used to keep down underbrush and create the open, grassy conditions favorable for game. Rather than domesticating animals for meat, Indians retooled whole ecosystems to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison. The first white settlers in Ohio found forests as open as English parks—they could drive carriages through the woods. Along the Hudson River the annual fall burning lit up the banks for miles on end; so flashy was the show that the Dutch in New Amsterdam boated upriver to goggle at the blaze like children at fireworks. In North America, Indian torches had their biggest impact on the Midwestern prairie, much or most of which was created and maintained by fire. Millennia of exuberant burning shaped the plains into vast buffalo farms...
The role of Native Americans was unappreciated because their numbers had been decimated (literally) by epidemic diseases such as smallpox and typhus.

The tricky part of this explanation is not the facts per se, but the implications - especially re tropical rain forests.  Amazonia was similarly "managed" by natives to such an extent that at one time it was capable of supporting huge populations, farming manufactured soil.  If that argument is loosely applied, it can be used to support the claim that modern man can "improve" the jungles of the Amazonian region through the use of technology to make them more useful and productive.

I'll stop here.  Those who have read this book are encouraged to offer comments on this post.


  1. "1491" turned upside down everything I was taught about Indians and early America. Now I'm halfway through "1493"--also by Mann--and it's just as enthralling.

  2. I'm just finishing this book up now, and have about 50 pages left. Not a topic I've read much about before, but I'm really looking forward to reading 1493. Highly recommended.

  3. Well, I haven't read it, but let me display my ignorance anyway. Primitive people don't practice birth control (infanticide yes, the rhythm method, no)and tend to reach a population well past the carrying capacity of their habitat (in bad years) in a few generations. You can believe that North America pre-Columbus was a paradise inhabited by instinctual ecologists living in harmony with nature if you want to (it now being a free country)but a betting man would bet on life having been nasty brutal and short.


    1. What does their method of birth control have anything to do with their being good stewards of the land? Infanticide, now they just do it in a doctor's office with different time guidelines. Is that better?

      Without Doppler radar and farming technology that's been developed in the last 100 years, life was brutal and short everywhere comparatively. What is it that you have against Native Americans? They worked with their environment to keep it sustainable, take a look at Europe (tendency to conquer the environment) and you will see a stark difference. They just had different methods and had quite a good thing going over here.

    2. I apologize for my insensitivity. How should I refer to people who practice infanticide?

    3. Considering that many "primitive" cultures did and do indeed practice birth control--monitoring vaginal mucous, for example, or more predominately, using herbs to bring on an early period--and considering that there's pretty believable evidence that some New World cultures did this (in the Caribbean), your argument hardly holds much water.

      You would also do well to remember that there were hundreds--if not thousands--of different distinct tribes and cultures in the New World, before contact with Europeans. So assuming that they all practiced infanticide is a big leap.

      And for the record, infanticide has been common in practically every culture at one time or another, following different guidelines and definitions of what is an infant, of course.

    4. Well, I haven't read it, but let me display my ignorance anyway.

      In this you succeeded.

    5. Which advanced people have practiced infanticide?

      My problem with people who try to idealize primitive cultures is that it denigrates everything civilization has built up over the past 3,000 years (law, engineering, sanitation). The idea that the Mohawks were somehow tending a garden paradise which the Puritans then rudely destroyed (which appears to be a theme of 1491 based on the passages quoted above) is risible. If the Iroquois were really living so peacefully in harmony with nature they wouldn't have had to kill their excess babies (not to mention each other in large and frequent numbers).

      Oh, and Steve ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQFKtI6gn9Y

    6. The book does not "idealize "primitive" cultures", in fact is does much to dispel those "noble savage" narratives. Of course you wouldn't know that because you never bothered to read the book at all (as I have), but still feel compelled (likely due to bigotry) to spiel about this random infanticide obsession, and throw around words like "primitive" when many of the cultures in the Americas were often more advanced (in other ways) than those that came over from "old" Europe.

      The book isn't only about North American indigenous populations either, it covers all of the Americas, including Mesoamerica and South America too of course.

      "engineering, sanitation"

      lmfao. I'd rather live in clean and sanitary Tenochtitlan in the 14th century than in any city in medieval Europe.

    7. Your attempt to moralize practices from extinct people is of course quite disgusting. There's no moral point in criticizing them, once they're dead, and there's not anyone around saying we should return to burning woods, hunting bisons and using primitive birth control because someone else did it. You sound like you are trying to stop people from dissolving modern State and return to mutual murder, just because we try to learn about the history of other societies.

      "How should I refer to people to practice infanticide" - if it is people who are themselves dead for half a millenium, who where killed in a mix of european-brought genocide and european-brought disease, and inhabited your land before you did, you should show some respect and call them "originary people". It doesn't matter if they didn't invented the press like the germans, or discovered the algorithm like the arabs. They where people made of flesh and bones and brains just like yourself and your ancestrals. And they had civilizations that where sophisticated and rich and had flaws, because they were full of lovely contradiction and passion and bullshit and evil, just like we are. The only way to superate their errors - and the errors of our own culture, and any other - is to try and understand what they had that was good and bad, which concepts and practices we can assimilate and which we can learn to avoid. That is what being civilized means, not being simply ethnocentric, like you are.

    8. Sorry, Stan, I got the punctuation right this time.

    9. Not many people proof-read their comments. Thanks. :.)

    10. "I apologize for my insensitivity. How should I refer to people who practice infanticide?"

      Your ignorance is profound. 3 words: Partial-Birth Abortions (or intrauterine cranial decompression, since the other is more of a political word). Start to deliver the baby, pull it's legs out first and then collapse it's head by sucking the brains out so it is removed easier.

      These were nationally banned clear back in history all the way in.... 2003.

      Most people's reason for abortions now: inconvenience, not ready, etc. Indians may have performed a similar practice with reasons like not sustainable, needs to be with it's mother. How can you judge one people adversely when similar practices exist now? Then claim that technology makes the current setup superior, but really just condemn their actions?

  4. I read both 1491 and 1493. I thought both were very interesting, and taught me much more than I ever learned in school about native populations. In comparison, I found 1493 a lot more dry than 1491.

  5. I liked this book very much, with two caveats:

    1] I like the grand strategic talk, but found the local stories of this chief attacking that chief uninteresting.

    2] At this point, it is a little old and I would love to know what the current thinking is for some of the more controversial points.

    But yeah, this was a lot of fun. You can see my full review on Goodreads:


  6. “A principal tool was fire, used to keep down underbrush and create the open, grassy conditions favorable for game. Rather than domesticating animals for meat, Indians retooled whole ecosystems to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison. ... In North America, Indian torches had their biggest impact on the Midwestern prairie, much or most of which was created and maintained by fire. Millennia of exuberant burning shaped the plains into vast buffalo farms...”
    This is, to say the least, crap. When Brazilian's slash and burn the rain forest to grow crops for two years using up the little natural nutrients the soil had we don't call that "retooling the ecosystem", though, I suppose that's exactly what they're doing. And the idea that the Great Plains would have been anything other than what they were if the Native Americans hadn’t been burning them is idiotic (who was burning the Russian Steppe to keep trees off of it?).
    And Pablo, exactly what moralizing was I doing? (I’ll do some now, you shouldn’t rip people without giving specific examples of where they went wrong). If you can't control your population through one means, you'll find another (war, infanticide, forced sterilization, sex selection abortions). I suspect that every primitive society practices infanticide (babies don’t fight back) of either their own or their competitor’s infants so it’s not like I have any special enmity toward the Native Americans. My point was that the Native Americans the English colonists found (which is why I was picking on the Iroquois - the Lakota were as bad) were not living in harmony with a carefully nurtured ecosystem. The reason they didn't end up like the Easter Islanders is because they had a much larger ecosystem to exploit. The reason that all humans aren’t living in a cycle of having too many babies for the local ecosystem to support followed by famine (rinse, repeat) which is the fate of primitive societies without exception is because of engineering, sanitation, medicine and the other things that advanced civilizations possess (note that past gains are no guarantee of future returns). I am not ethnocentric – I just believe that we are all lucky as crap to be living now instead of in 1350 and I doubt anyone reading this would disagree with me (well, maybe Steve).

    1. Also, I believe there is nothing “disgusting” about commenting on the morals of extinct people – to avoid being the first person to trigger Godwin’s Law and to pick on folks from a different hemisphere, let me just say that the British invention of the concentration camp and the British use of them on Boer civilians was disgusting and an act that we should all be aware of and abhor so as not to repeat the error (there, not so really disgusting when I pick on white people behaving badly was it?) And if someone had made that point circa 1934 to a particular people (but unnameable herein because of Godwin) perhaps the error wouldn’t have been repeated. And of course, what the Italians did to the Ethiopians is so far beyond the pale (complicated pun for non-native English speakers, sorry) that I can’t even bring myself to bring it up even though the Italians aren’t extinct yet – horribly disgusting what they did though and it should be commented on in Italian schools at least yearly to educate their children in behaviors that they shouldn’t be repeating. Also, I might mention that what the Spanish did to themselves http://www.culturewars.org.uk/index.php/site/article/the_unquiet_grave/ was actually disgusting and I feel free to say so and would hope that Spanish children are being made aware of it and that Spanish teachers are commenting on the morality of it without excess self-loathing.

      Steve may prefer to live in a city where the life expectancy was 37 ( http://archaeology.about.com/od/aztecarchaeology/a/aztec_sg_3.htm ), the national sport was ripping the still-beating-hearts out of prisoners using stone knives (the iron age still being a few decades away) by the tens of thousands (http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/289-aztec-hamlet-the-tragedy-of-moctezuma-2 ) and anyone not related to the hereditary king had the rights of a steer at the abattoir gate, than in Paris pre-black death (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man ). But I would rather live in London in 2012 where they have sanitation, antibiotics, a legal system not based on the divine right of kings, the West End and the St John restaurant and anyone who puts forward the proposition that they’d rather be living anywhere in the 14th century than in London in 2012 is confused.
      That brings me back to the passage quoted above which makes me not want to read 1491 because it was written by someone with an agenda (Wasn’t it great here before the white man arrived?). It was not great here (or in Europe prior to the 19th century) before the white man arrived. Life was nasty, brutish and short in the Americas and books like 1491 do no one any favors to posit that it was otherwise. And no, for those of you convinced I’m a chauvinist racist pig, I would not choose to live in London in 1603 for the pleasure of seeing Othello live at the Globe either. Give me a nice roasted marrow bone and parsley salad any day.

    2. Life was nasty, brutish and short in the Americas and books like 1491 do no one any favors to posit that it was otherwise

      Have you no shame or self respect? Just to be clear, you're critiquing a book you haven't even read.

    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    4. Comment deleted because you were directing personal insults at Bub. Ad hominem attacks are not allowed on this blog.

  7. But I would rather live in London in 2012 where they have sanitation, antibiotics, a legal system not based on the divine right of kings, the West End and the St John restaurant and anyone who puts forward the proposition that they’d rather be living anywhere in the 14th century than in London in 2012 is confused.

    Obvious troll is obvious. I said 14th century Tenochtitlan vs. 14th century Europe, not London in 2012.

    and anyone not related to the hereditary king had the rights of a steer at the abattoir gate.

    So, same as in Europe basically, where your first site upon entering London would have been a host of decapitated heads on pikes of poor unfortunates who crossed the crown in real or imagined ways.

    But I would rather live in London in 2012 where they have sanitation,

    Now they do, it would have been a diseased, stagnant water, cesspool in medieval times, unlike Tenochtitlan.

  8. Life expectancy in England at the same time? 31


  9. My thesis is (and was) that life was nasty brutish and short in North America before the Europeans brought law, engineering, agriculture, the Protestant work ethic, and the modern conveniences available in 1619 to these shores. As evidence, I pointed to the need on the part of the locals to murder excess babies as not being consistent with a well-groomed paradise where man and nature lived side by side in mutual bliss. No where did I state that Native Americans were worse than their European cousins on that account (who just let poor people starve to death) or that living in Europe at the same time was a picnic. So far, no one has gainsayed my thesis though they have had fun hurling ad hominems at me, throwing up strawmen so they can argue them down with tautologies, and airing America's dirty laundry as if their own wasn't at least as noxious and much more recent.

    What I know about the book is the passage quoted above (which flies in the face of all human experience and can't possibly be true - the cause, not the result). If the author somehow had it both ways (a physical paradise full of suffering humanity) I apologize to him and promise to read the book. Otherwise, it's just another fantasy/exercise-in-self-loathing that I'm not interested in.

    1. Bub, if the passage you're referring to is the one that begins "The woods abound with acorns...", note that that's from a different book, reviewed by me here -


      - and cites a Dutch sailor in 1624, who may have been embellishing his description to encourage migration to the area.

  10. Every historian has an agenda, they are human. If you only read history that agrees with your own agenda then you are doomed to live a very narrow sad existence.

  11. OK, I'll read the book and report back.

  12. Bub - Please stop referring to indigenous peoples as "extinct," and stop defending colonialism and genocide.

  13. Hi Anonymous - I was quoting Mr. Ugolini on the extinct thing (his command of English being excellent, but not perfect, he probably meant dead people), I don't recall defending genocide here or anywhere else. I don't believe I defended colonialism either, but feel free to put words in my mouth if it makes you feel superior/happy/more intelligent or in any other way makes up for your experience with the verbal section of the SATs.

    1. Hi Bub. My apologies about the mix-up on "the extinct thing." Mr Ugolini does seem to be referring to actual extinct civilizations and people; however, you were referencing the Mohawk earlier and bring them back into the fold of your discussion, so perhaps it would be helpful if you didn't confuse Nations and civilizations in your own reply. Your generalizations and selective understanding of, for instance, slash and burn practices in Brazil and prescribed fires in the midwest, are also incorrect but it's your own responsibility to do the research there. If you want to dismiss it as "crap," then there's really nothing anyone can say to convince you otherwise. Those claims, however, are not correct and I would like to offer that up to you for your greater consideration. Fire histories are real, and traceable. So are oral histories.

      I'll also amend my own reply since specific structural language use (and not context) seems to be of concern here. To be more specific, I should have said that the particular discursive practice and language use you chose to employ contributes to the ongoing genocidal and colonial project that disposseses indigenous peoples of their lands and ways of life today. The "thesis" that you put forth is a great example of this. It's not helpful to a discussion/post on a book that effectively deconstructs white myths and contributes to a much-needed dialogue on decolonization in North America.

      I don't have a blog account so I posted as anonymous. My name is Gwen. I'm not trying to hurt your feelings. My replies are in reponse to your own, which you chose to make public and which are for several reasons problematic. The comment about SATs is pretty inappropriate and irrelevant here but whatever. On the plus side, this thread has been interesting to read.

    2. I've been following this dialogue as well. You guys are quite welcome to continue the debate as long as you like, as long as the repartee remains reasonably civil (I don't mind the occasional wicked insult or innuendo, as long as a post doesn't consist entirely of character assassination). Frankly, I'm glad to have multiple viewpoints expressed in comment threads - it makes the blog more interesting (and more like real life).

      I hope you all understand that for a topic like this (or anthropogenic global warming, or intervention in Iran), you're unlikely to convert others to your way of thinking - but perhaps it serves as good practice for honing debate skills, garnering information on how misinformed "others" think, etc.

  14. NPR read a passage from the diary of an English woman from the upper classes who ended up on a ranch in the west somewhere in the 19th century. The entry was about a toothache she'd had for 3 days preventing her from sleeping. In desperation, she wound a wire around the tooth, tied the other end to a rafter, and jumped out of a hayloft. The tooth was ripped from her jaw much to her relief.

    It wasn't just in 16th Century Upstate (future) New York that life sucked. It sucked everywhere continuously for 99.9999% of the human race from time immemorial through the discovery of ether after which it was merely mostly horrible until around the time of the discovery of penicillin.

    I have nothing against the Iroquois who were no different than any other pre-modern civilization people and I have no illusions that modern Americans would behave any differently than they did should our cushy circumstances change for the much worse.

    So, when I read things that try to portray the pre-modern era as anything but the horror that it was it bugs me. Portraying the Native Americans as if they were the blue people from Avatar is just a manifestation of self-loathing for our own cushy existence.

    Prairie is prairie for a reason (steppe is steppe for a reason). Midwesterners are letting the prairie revert to tall grass in parks and National Grasslands, which it is happily doing.

    See http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2604/why-dont-trees-grow-on-the-great-plains

    That's all I'm trying to get people to do - understand that the human race has never had it as good as they do now. Whether that supports any particular view point on any particular subject is irrelevant. It's wrong to suppress facts because they are inconvenient.

    Is there really an on-going discussion of the decolonization of North America? I'm not moving back to England/Ireland/Holland/Germany regardless of the allure of socialized medicine.

  15. Bub - It is so wonderful that you've deigned to inform us of what sloppy-thinking, distorted 'facts' are rolling around in your head, in your randomly-connected maelstrom of nothingness. We are all so much more well informed than before.

    The book was a very much needed source of real information about the Americas before colonization happened. I think people who actually read it - and read other histories written by people who've actually researched the subject - all shake their heads at such misinformed opinions as yours. Does it even occur to you to inform yourself on a subject before educating everyone of your ignorance?

    Sorry, Stan - Aggressive ignorance is not something I tolerate well.

  16. OK, so I read the book. My bias going in was that he would be portraying the western hemisphere pre-1492 as an eco-paradise inhabited by peace-loving native people living in harmony with each other and their neighbors (basically the Na'vis from Avatar). As that was my bias going in, it shouldn't surprise anyone that that's what I found.

    There may be some value in the book, but it appeared to my (biased) eye that everything in it was distorted to forward his thesis that (in his words) “Columbus showed up and ruined everything”. In the chapter on the Amazon, Mann mentions that the native peoples didn’t leave any large public structures behind because the ease of migration in Amazonia prevented the ruling elites from organizing large groups of people to perform (his words) forced labor. He skips lightly over how the Aztec, Maya, Incas and Mississippi Valley natives persuaded their people to build their large public structures. I’m going to guess it wasn’t done using sweet persuasion following a drum circle and the singing of Kumbai-ah. So, while he portrayed the Incas as enlightened rulers of their domain, the plain words of their history (as presented by Mann) make the government of North Korea look like the Norwegians in comparison to the Inca – with the added charm of the Inca having the ability to wage wars of aggression on their neighbors. The Inca were somewhat enlightened in comparison to the Aztec. But unlike Mann, I don’t think the Aztec advances in the Arts and Mathematics made up for the human sacrifice thing. Which is not to say that I think the Europeans of that age were any better because I don’t think that.

    There were many places where Mann crawled out on a slender reed to push the pre-Columbus population upwards. One of the areas where the Amazonian natives had improved the soil (1.5 square miles) was said to be capable of supporting 200,000 to 400,000 people. If they had planted all of it in corn and had access to modern fertilizers and pesticides, 1.5 square miles couldn’t support 20,000 people (and those 20,000 people would all have rickets). One of the areas in Peru was postulated as having supported up to 1,000,000 people when it is almost empty today. If people can’t make a go of it there today considering all the advantages modern people have, how did anyone make a go of it 500 years ago?

    It may be that the Iroquois were the paragon that Mann portrays them as, but since everything else in the book falls pretty far short of the standards expected in academia, I have my doubts. He skips lightly over the Iroquios’s genocidal wars against the Eire and Neutrals, for example (by not mentioning them). In every pre-modern culture where we have decent documentation, the human population expanded to the carrying capacity of the local environment and then they either made war on their neighbors or experienced periodic famine to control the population. The Iroquois were no different. Modern people aren’t different – we’ve just increased the carrying capacity of our lands faster than our population is growing (probably temporarily).

  17. Mann did tap into some primal need people have to imagine that there is an Oz and that it’s ok to be dissatisfied with how things are now because you were only born in the wrong time and if only you had been born a Sachem of the mighty Mohawk Nation circa 1450 you wouldn’t be stuck in some crappy job in the here and now. That explains why there's so much anger among the drum circle and tofu crowd up above. They really want to believe that there was a paradise in the Western Hemisphere before modern society mucked it all up and made them so unhappy and they could get back to if except for the machinations of the 1% intent on keeping them chained to their work benches. So when I come along and mention that modern dentistry makes up not being able to walk out into the woods and easily gather enough huckleberries and pine nuts for a nutritious meal (not that you could ever do that) they assume I'm evil and willfully ignorant (bwah hah hah).

    1. Thank you for both comments, Bub.

      This morning I looked for a clarification re your comments re agriculture in Amazonia. At the end of chapter 9, Mann says "If the agriculture practiced in the lower Tapajos were as intensive as in the most complex cultures in precontact North America, Woods told me, 'you'd be talking something capable of supporting about 200,000 to 400,000 people...'"

      Your reference to "1.5 square miles" comes from a sentence earlier in the same paragraph: "One of the biggest patches of terra preta is on the high bluffs at the mouth of the Tapajos, near Santarem... the terra preta zone is three miles long and half a mile wide, suggesting widespread human habitation..."

      I totally agree with you that even intensive farming of 1.5 square miles would not support many people, but the total area of terra preta is estimated to be several thousand square miles. I think its the latter area that he implies was used for agricultural support.

      To me the precise size of the population is not particularly important; authors and researchers would have a predictable bias to overestimate the numbers to make their work and publications more important. What's interesting to me is that the Amazonian region was capable of supporting agriculture on a sustained basis long enough to have built up the deep terra preta.

      I would agree with your assertion that the precontact world of the Americas would not be viewed as a "paradise" to a modern person transported to that world. It may well have been a "paradise" for the natural world, however, which was the subject for the other book I reviewed here -


      - and which to me was more interesting than 1491.

  18. Imagine what it was like for the first Cro Magnon to enter Europe - of course they exterminated the native Neanderthals and quickly devolved into warring tribes engaged in permanent warfare with the neighbors within predictable cycles of famine.


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