Review |1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

I’ll be the first to admit that my interests in the historical have generally been Eurocentric, especially the Roman Republic and Empire. Recently, though, I found reason to pick up Charles C. Mann’s “1491,” and I have had a hard time putting it down since.

The children’s nursery rhyme reminds us that “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Just this last week we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving and the mythologized first meal shared by “Pilgrims” and Native Americans in the early years of Captain John Smith’s Plymouth Colony in the 1620s. But what came before Europeans in the “New World” of North and South America? What was already here when they arrived? Was there much more than a few human sacrificing Aztecs (in South and Central America) and nomadic tribes in North America?

Quite the contrary, says Mann. Rather, he says, the land was full of people, developed into complex cultures and polities. For example, and he expands on many, the Maya controlled an empire that was larger than any in the old world, both in size and population. The Mexica (pronounced Meh-shi-ka) had a literary culture full of metaphor and simile, and a rhetorical tradition that enabled them to meet Franciscan friars sent to convert them on equal ground. In North America, as far as the shores of New England, the coast was full hundreds of thousands of Native Americans–the nations of the Micmac, Passamoquoddy, Abenaki, Mahican, and the Massachusett, among others.

Indeed, there were so many people in both North and South America that Mann wonders if settlement by European colonists would have been possible but for the effects of disease on the native population. So devastating were diseases such as small pox, influenza, and non-sexually transmitted hepatitis that civilizations such as the Maya may have been destroyed before Europeans even landed on the shores of South America. Similarly, the nations of New England, which had filled the land and had traded with early French and English merchants during the 16th century, almost disappeared over a period as short as two to five years.

Why was disease so devastating? While not the central focus of the book, or even the examination of “what was here before 1492,” Mann explains how the relatively limited genetic stock of Native Americans presented insufficient diversity for the native populations to survive the diseases that had been active in Europe and Africa for thousands of years. Native Americans were in no way inferior–they just came from fewer people and thus had less genetic diversity, had never faced diseases as the Europeans (and their pigs) carried and therefore fewer of them survived the introduction of the diseases to the American peoples. The result was that within a few years, entire nations and their cultures all but vanished from the Earth…leaving the appearance of a empty land with only a few roving tribes. Indeed, says Mann, the reason those tribes were roving may be because they had been cut down from populations levels necessary to support a stable and stationary settlement.

Among some of the other interesting tales and studies that Mann shares in his book is the story of Tisquantum, who we know as Squanto. His name, which he may have given himself, meant something along the lines of “wrath of God,” and Mann suggests that when he appeared in the Plymouth Colony, his intentions may not have been as benign as have been told to us in elementary school pageants. Born an original New Englander, he was kidnapped by Europeans as a souvenir and taken to Spain. Eventually, he ended up in England in the home of a rich merchant, again as an oddity to show to visitors. Learning English, he eventually convinced the merchant to send him back to America. However, in the time between his kidnapping and return, hepatitis ran rampant through his and the other nations living in what is not modern-day Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, wiping out his people and others. He returned to an empty land and was captured by a rival nation, who later used him and his ability to speak English to liaison with the Plymouth Colony. He, in return, may have tried to use the colonists as leverage to take over the rival nation.

1491 is a fascinating book, and a fascinating piece of history, covering a period of history that we may have spent less time examining than is merited given the size and scope of the civilizations that preceded European colonization of the Americas. Containing cities that dwarfed Rome in its greatest day and Paris and London at the time, the Americas in 1491 were, by Mann’s telling, a busy, populated and colorful place, and it deserves a place in our histories and archives alongside those of the other great civilizations of history.

 [Previously posted at Publius Online]
About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.