Book details
name:1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
author:Charles C. Mann
publisher:Vintage (Random House)
publication date:Originally 2006, reviewed in 2011
edition:Paperback, second edition

I bought 1491 a few years ago and started reading it then. I stopped, for reasons unrelated to the book, but got back to it again. Then and now, the reading was a pleasure, and Charles C. Mann shows how good he is at explaining a complex topic.

The book basically is what it promises on the cover (see a photo below): it goes over what was “known” of the Americas before 1492 (the year of the “discovery” by the Europeans), and then sees how these views have changed over time, and more especially, recently. The book was originally published in 2006, and later reviewed in 2011. Now (2023 as of writing this) some views of the experts may have shifted somehow but the views of the book probably will remain valid for quite a while.

The main thesis of the book is that while there was this idea that the Americas where, plainly said, backwards (as in technologically and maybe socially less developed than Europe at the time) and mostly unpopulated, recent studies show that this need not be so and that very probably similar views are wrong. Mann not only explains how the perception has changed, in a big part he explains what has led to these changes.

The only problem with the book is one that is inevitable: it’s a lot of information. The period reviewed (human habitation before 1491) and the area (North, Central and South America) are both huge, and thus there are lots of different areas, peoples and environments to consider. Mann does manage to keep it under control and it’s not a super dense read, although sometimes I had to go back in the book to remember something he mentioned about a different group of people before. Still, the important thing in the book is not the details, and the generalities do come along quite well.

What I personally got from the book — apart from a good time and a much better idea of the (pre)history of the American continents — where developments of three different ideas.

First, that it’s easy to forget that people in the past were… well, people. They were smart and lived in complex societies, even if these societies where, or seem to us, much simpler than ours. I think it’s easy to believe that the past is just a background and that history has really started existing recently, and this is a view that indirectly permeates a lot of people’s ideas and also lots of media1

Second, that, despite the previous paragraph, people in the past were in fact quite different. It’s not easy for us to put ourselves in their shoes and sometimes doing so leads to incorrect inferences.

More interesting to me, though, a thread that has been in my mind since reading The Mismeasure of Man [[][[goodreads]​]], is the close relationship between (scientific) interpretations and the context in which they are made. In the book we see examples of ideas changing due to new data being collected, but also due to looking at previous data with new eyes, and maybe less prejudices.

For anyone remotely interested in any of these topics, I can’t recommend this book enough.

  1. Hopefully at some point I’ll develop this into a post or podcast. ↩︎