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Fourteen ninety-one April 25th, 2021 by

Several friends have asked me, as an anthropologist, what I thought of Charles Mann’s book, 1491, so after finding a copy during Covid, I have to say that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

I might have read it years ago if not for its subtitle: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. I was expecting something New Age, about visits from outer space. But it’s not that at all.

Mann visited some of the major pre-Hispanic sites, and read widely, but as a journalist he also interviewed a lot of archaeologists, which makes for lively reading, and an excellent one-volume history of the New World.

Long isolated from the Old World, the Native Americans independently developed agriculture, the foundation for complex societies. But because the hemisphere had been isolated, her people had no previous exposure to European ills like smallpox, measles and hepatitis. This made the Native Americans immunologically naĂŻve, and susceptible to Old World diseases, which wiped out perhaps 90% of the New World population after Columbus. Every few years a new epidemic would carry off half the people.

In 1491 there were a lot of people living in the Americas. The Amazon Basin was not an unbroken wilderness. Cassava and other crops supported dense populations of Amazonian farmers.

High in the Andes, early farmers domesticated the potato, sweetpotato, and other roots and tubers. These crops fed the Wari, Tiwanaku and Inca Empires with their fine masonry of giant stones, and the khipu: a unique system of recording information on knotted strings.

Ancient Mexicans domesticated maize, beans, squash, and chili. These were the basis for various civilizations, like the Olmecs, Toltecs, Mixtecs and the Maya (who had life-like sculpture and a full-blown writing system).

Mann reminds us that American Indians have rarely been given the appreciation they deserve for their achievements, many of which were made possible by agriculture.  1491 is not so much a new revelation as a superb compilation and a compelling narrative. Mann is amazed that this part of American history is not taught in high schools. It’s not, but it should be, and his book still deserves to be widely read.

Further reading

Mann, Charles C. 2005 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books. 541 pp.

Mann acknowledges William Denevan for his insight that before Columbus, the Amazon Basin had been densely inhabited by farmers growing permanent crops.

Denevan, William M. 2001 Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 396 pp.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Khipu: A story tied in knots

Stored crops of the Inka

Feeding the ancient Andean state

Feeding the Inca empire

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld


Temple of the Moon, Teotihuacán, Mexico. Machu Picchu, Peru. Stela B, Copán, Honduras. Photos by J. Bentley

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