Our high school history texts have always told us that when Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492, what he “discovered” was a largely empty continent. When the Conquistadors invaded Central and South America, they came upon savage tribes in need of conversion and looting. When the Pilgrims arrived in North America, the land they found was waiting for God’s People to tame, subdue, and settle it. More recently, we’ve also been reading in our romanticized New Age books that Native Americans lived lightly upon the land, and pagans should follow their example. Hollywood movies and environmental campaigns have reinforced this popular image of the Noble Savage. Many pagans today “walk the red path” and need to know what that path really looks like. Most pagans “worship the ground we walk on”; in the Americas, at least, we need to know how that ground got the way it is.


As Charles C. Mann reveals in this astonishing book, all the familiar mythology just isn’t true. Turning to new scholarship, new disciplines, and new technology— demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, and palynology (pollen analysis); molecular and evolutionary biology; carbon-14 dating, ice-core sampling, satellite photography, and soil assays; genetic microsatellite analysis and virtual 3-D fly-throughs—he reveals what the American continent really looked like the year before Columbus arrived. And for thousands of years before that. The Indians, he writes, “were not nomadic, but built up and lived in some of the world’s biggest and most opulent cities. Far from being dependent on big-game hunting, most Indians lived on farms. … In other words, the Americas were immeasurably busier, more diverse, and more populous than researchers … previously imagined. And older, too” (p. 15).


Unless you’ve been paying close attention to fifty years of debates between the High Counters and the Low Counters, the Clovisites and the pre-Clovisites, and promoters of various arcane theories, you will be hurled into a paradign shift by what you read. For example: People were building civilizations in the Americas when northern Europe was still under sheets of ice, which means that the “new” in “New” World may be a misnomer. When Europeans (and their pigs) brought small pox, hepatitis A, and measles to the New World in the 16th century, the resulting plagues killed one fifth of the world’s population. The Indians terraformed both North and South America. They created those famous “untouched” forests through direct management that included annual fires. The vast herds of bison and other animals were the result of the fact that after the plagues there were too few people left to manage the land. And the real name of the friendly Squanto we learned about in the second grade was Tisquantum, which means something like Wrath of God.


1491 begins with the stories of the Pilgrims and the Inkas. As much as possible, Mann refers to the Indians by the names they called themselves. “Inca,” for example, is a Spanish word; “Inka” is the proper spelling. It comes from Ruma Sumi, the language they spoke. The Aztecs were properly the Mexica, only one tribe of the Triple Alliance. Appendix A, in fact, explains Mann’s use of “loaded words.” Other topics addressed in the book are possible prehistoric routes to the New World and dates of settlement long before the Clovis culture, the invention (yes, invention) of maize, why the Maya did not use wheels except as toys (the land where they lived was too muddy), and what humankind lost when civilizations as old, creative, philosophical, and literate as those of Sumer and Egypt were decimated.


~review by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.

Author: Charles C. Mann

Alfred A. Knopf, 2005