Book Recommendation: 1491, Charles C. Mann, Part 1


Hello everyone! Today’s post is on the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. While I have not yet completed this book, I am currently enjoying it very much, and so thought that a post would be a good idea. As the title implies, the subject of this book is the civilizations of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. The book weaves a rich tapestry on this subject, drawing on the work of generations of historians, historical demographers, archeologists, sociologists, and others to bring to life civilizations which have since passed from the face of the Earth. In reading this book, a whole new historical world has opened for me. Previously, I was unaware of most aspects of the history of the Americas; one good example of an interesting historical fact contained in this book is that it is a strong possibility (though not certain) that the Inca developed a writing system in the form of long, knotted strings called khipu. The colours of the string, subsidiary strings which descended from the main knots, and the design and order of the knots were able to tell a story, an entirely unique writing system in the history of civilization. “Reading” the khipu depended on both sight and touch, making this also one of the only tactile writing methods in history. It is through glimpses such as this that Mann is able to evoke a feeling of nostalgia for a world which ceased to exist long ago; the loss of these civilizations and the majority of their records was truly a tragedy on a massive scale, and one which can never be undone.

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Among the principal purposes of Mann in composing this book was to make an entry into the ongoing conflict between historians surrounding the population, pre-contact, of the Americas. While it is well known that diseases from Europe such as smallpox devastated the unprepared societies which they encountered in the Americas (and elsewhere, such as the inhabitants of South Africa or Siberia), the actual casualty rates remain widely debated, with usual estimates ranging anywhere from 25%-99%. As a result, the population of the Americas pre-contact is a subject of intense debate as well; it is the position of Mann that it was in the vicinity of 100 million, quite possibly larger. This makes Mann one of the so-called “high counters”, and he makes his case quite strongly in 1491. While both sides certainly have their merits, I, personally, have emerged from the first section of this book (which deals with the immediate moment of contact and what it reveals about the societies it would destroy) concurring with Mann’s arguments.

Another excellent aspect of this book is the amount of detail it is capable of adding to societies who are usually discussed in a fairly one-dimensional manner. The North American civilizations, usually discussed as nomadic tribes who had no impact on their environment, are here shown to have been civilization builders themselves; neither are the Aztecs (or the Triple Alliance, as they are more correctly named according to Mann) portrayed as bloodthirsty zealots to the exclusion of all else. Rather, the history of the societies of the Americas is told here in the same way histories have always been told about everywhere else; without a simplistic narrative which is held to define entire groups of people. This is the history of the Americas as it was meant to be told- in colour. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough if you are interested at all in the history of the Americas. I hope you all enjoyed this post; look forward to a follow-up once I have actually completed the book to let you know how the later parts hold up. Have a wonderful day!

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