Review of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
One of my favourite passages to assign to my English classes is an excerpt from All Our Relations, by Tanya Talaga. In it, she says, “The New World, so to speak, was already an Old World.” I love this excerpt, the facts that Talaga shares as she grounds them in her own search for identity and relations, because it approaches issues of colonialism through a different lens from the one we often see in Canada. The story of colonization, when it is taught at all, is often very one-sided and Eurocentric. The suffering of Indigenous peoples, when it is framed that way at all, is presented in the context of technologically and even culturally superior Europeans overwhelming and eliminating the small groups of Indigenous people who lived here. In this way, Talaga explains, settlers maintain control over the narrative of colonization, even as they allow it to be adjusted to be tragic. In reality, Indigenous peoples had vibrant and populous civilizations on these continents long before Europeans arrived. That’s the topic Charles C. Mann covers in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. In a series of detailed yet never too dense chapters, Mann helps us understand the complexity of life in the Americas before they were ever named that. Although likely outdated in parts by now, this book was still so illuminating and invigorating. I can’t speak for how interesting an Indigenous reader would find it, but as a white person, I have to say, I needed this knowledge.
Mann’s overall thesis is simple: what we learn in school doesn’t match with the actual, current state of archaeological/anthropological ideas of life in pre-Columbian America. The textbooks misrepresent colonization, yes, but they also misrepresent the state of this land before European colonization. In so doing, they perpetuate the white supremacist idea of terra nullius—that Europeans are justified in settling the land because it was basically empty and unused. In the past, archaeologists supported that viewpoint—partly because, you know, ethnocentric blindspots and racism and all that, but also because the archaeological record is fragmentary and often difficult to locate and interpret.
To that end, Mann devotes the first part of the book to exploring the question of how many people lived here prior to 1492. It’s a difficult question to answer with anything like accuracy, something he and his sources acknowledge. Mann is careful throughout this book to discuss conflicting theories, to point out when the science and history are far from settled, and to discuss when source material or calculations might be problematic. This is one of the strengths of 1491: while Mann certainly has an agenda here, it’s one built on careful reference to evidence. At no point does one get the sense that Mann is selectively presenting evidence to convince us he’s right. Instead, what he tries to do is show us that there is plenty of evidence that undermines the conventional narratives we’ve grown up with.
Much of this part of the book focuses on the role of disease in decimating Indigenous populations. (Decimation in its most literal meaning of “1 in 10” is, of course, grossly inaccurate in this case.) Recent scholarship suggests that Indigenous populations were far larger than initially estimated because initial contacts with Europeans allowed diseases like smallpox to spread far and wide in advance of colonization. Hence, as settlers moved in to new areas, the people they saw were often already greatly reduced in number. This is an interesting idea and a reminder that, when we are creating hypotheses in science, especially science that intersects with historical accounts, we need to be careful to consider all the angles.
Now, one of the most obvious potential problems with this book is that Mann is a settler journalist. Again, he confronts this head-on. He acknowledges that it is problematic that so much research relies on colonial records and Western ways of knowledge-gathering. To his credit, he often quotes Indigenous scientists, scholars, and activists, especially when their points of view disagree with a loud view in the scientific arena. We need to work on decolonizing anthropology and archaeology as much as the other sciences. This book is almost 20 years old, and I would hope that now, in 2021, an Indigenous journalist would be the one who writes this type of book. All I can say is that Mann does his best given the limits of his positionality. On a similar note, this book is a survey. The cultures discussed within all deserve their own books—probably volumes upon volumes of their own books—and I would love to see those written by Indigenous scholars.
The second part of the book moves from quantity to quality. Mann examines new theories regarding both how Indigenous peoples populated the Americas as well as the types of civilizations they created. Mann discusses the more well-known cultures that were recognizable even to colonizers as a type of society (even if those colonizers didn’t want to call it civilization): the Inka, the Triple Alliance (aka the Mexica/Aztec), the Maya, etc. He mentions Cahokia, which I had heard about. But perhaps more interesting is how he connects many of these stories. He doesn’t just talk about the Maya or the Aztec: he gets into the details of the various cultures that rose and fell around these giants of history. In so doing, he establishes how these more well-known empires didn’t exist in vacuums but rather emerged from complex societies and fell back into different but still complex societies. The end result is a picture of the Americas that is so much busier than the stereotypes would have us believe.
The final part of 1491 pulls back from social structure to discuss instead infrastructure. Again, we have this stereotype that Indigenous peoples were primitive and lived in harmony and balance with nature. In some ways this is a “positive” stereotype that frames Indigenous people as superior to greedy, extractive Europeans. In other ways this is a “negative” stereotype that frames Indigenous people as inferior to technologically innovative Europeans. Either way, it’s a stereotype that harms Indigenous people. It’s true that Indigenous peoples lived off the land in a symbiotic way. But as Mann seeks to demonstrate, across both continents Indigenous nations were shaping the land for practical uses, including agriculture. Not all Indigenous cultures were primarily hunter/gatherer or foragers. Some practised complex agriculture, which resulted in far-flung trade routes as well.
It’s just so incredible to see everything laid out like this in a single volume! Some of it I had heard about, lots of it I hadn’t, and all of it in far more detail than I had encountered before. Sure, some of it is outdated by now, and even at the time of writing was speculative at best. Mann isn’t claiming that his work is the definitive history of pre-Columbian America. Rather, 1491 explores how archaeologists and anthropologists are finally beginning to listen to what Indigenous people have been saying all along: we were always here; we know where we used to live before Europeans came; we have lost much as a result of colonization. For me as a white person, reading this book helps me educate myself so I can speak more forcefully against modern-day colonialism.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants a semi-academic, very detailed survey of Indigenous civilizations prior to contact with Europeans. It’s not a perfect volume. Sometimes Mann’s organization of ideas could be improved; sometimes his writing becomes a little too effusive or poetical for me. But the ideas, the evidence, the meticulousness of the research? It’s all there, and it is laid out in such a way that if you steep yourself in it like I did, you’ll walk away so much better informed about this topic than school ever did.
I just hope I can pass it on to my students.