What I’m Reading: 1491 – New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

My brother is a very practical person so for the past few years we have mostly stopped guessing what we want for Christmas, we go ahead and tell each other what we’re interested in. So last Christmas I sent him my Pinterest board of books I wanted which mostly had to do with Mexican/Latin American history (I’ve realized that despite majoring in Spanish I am really lacking in historical knowledge of Latin America). So he ended up getting me two books that weren’t actually on the list but related to the theme: 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann, documenting the state of the Americas before and after Columbus. I finally got around to reading 1491 and I really enjoyed it! As a fiction lover I am sometimes skeptical of historical narratives but Mann has a narrative style that makes the pages fly by. Plus, the subject is really interesting and even though you may think you learned all about this in school, there are lots of new revelations, as the title promises, about many of the cultures and people living in the Americas before its “discovery.”

The main thesis of this book is that what is taught in schools and generally believed to be true about American cultures before Columbus is being sharply questioned and proven false by new findings by anthropologists, archeologists and historians through new discoveries and the ability of new technologies like DNA analysis to give us hard data. Basically, these new findings are that Indian people (the term used by Mann) were far more numerous than was originally thought, lived in complex and advanced societies and cultures, shaped their environment more than is traditionally thought and finally, that the scale of widespread death after the arrival of the Europeans is even more shocking than we have learned.

1491 book by Charles C. Mann


One of the most impressive and long-lasting Indian advancements according to Mann is the development of maize, or corn. While the development of wheat in Europe was a relatively simple adaption of wild wheat to make it more productive, maize has no wild equivalent. The closest wild relative is so far removed from what we know as maize that modern plant scientists are still amazed by its transformation.

Once maize was developed, another impressive feat was its spread throughout the Americas. It was developed in southern Mexico but by the time of Columbus’ arrival it had spread north to New England and south to Peru. With European intervention, maize was brought to Europe and Africa and is a staple crop now for much of the world.

The development of maize is put into perspective by this quote by Nina V. Federoff, a geneticist at Penn State,

“Arguably man’s first, and perhaps his greatest, feat of genetic engineering”

different types of maize from Oaxaca, Mexico


Still in Mexico, Mann goes in depth about the prevalence and reason for human sacrifice among the Triple Alliance, better known as the Aztec empire.

For the Aztecs, the sun was the most important figure, it brought them light each day. But delivering that light to them was not an easy task, the sun had to fight the moon and the stars to take its place in the sky and change the night to day. Understandably, a daily fight against so many adversaries required immense amounts of energy and to show their appreciation and help the sun in his battle, the Aztecs wanted to give him some energy – but that energy only came from ritual human sacrifice.

In order to not kill off their own people, the Triple Alliance sacrificed prisoners of war to provide the sun with its energy. In this way,

“the sacred mission of the triple Alliance became translated into a secular mission: to obtain prisoners to sacrifice for the sun, the Alliance had to take over the world”

Human sacrifice was the reason behind their power grabs and hunger for war but it also justified their leadership, they needed to provide the sun the energy it needed to rise every day.

Despite this appetite for regular and large-scale human sacrifice, Mann puts this practice into perspective by comparing it to what was happening in Europe at the same time. While we tend to think of the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs as barbaric and horrific, Europe had just as much of an “appetite for death as a spectacle.”

“In their penchant for ceremonial public slaughter, the Alliance and Europe were more alike than either side grasped.”

If you’re a Game of Thrones fan like me, then it’s not as hard to flip the switch of our thinking when you remember the countless scenes of public killings and subsequent heads on spikes. The Europeans used these public killings to maintain control and order over the common people and the Aztecs did it to ensure that the sun would rise the next day. It definitely brings home the point that history is written by the victors and the impressions we have about things like human sacrifice are biased by our perspective.

New revelations of the Americas before Columbus

For me, the most interesting revelation in this book was the relationship between Native Americans and the land. Our idealistic vision of Indians living in harmony with nature and only touching and taking what they needed to preserve the wild landscape is only partway true. While indigenous people have historically proven themselves to be better stewards of the land than the Europeans and their descendants, they were not hands-free managers. The Native Americans of North America regulated their environment by burning huge swaths of land to maintain the prairie landscape that bison and other animals thrived in.

“Carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature – but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing”

In the Amazon, usually thought of as an area that is challenging for agriculture after trees have been cleared, the Indians also practiced burning but it actually made the soil more fertile for agriculture. They practiced slash-and-char, partly burning trees to create charcoal which they would then mix in the soil with pottery shards and other waste. This practice created thick black soil, known as terra preta, that could hold nutrients and which is still visibly notable today. Indians were able to convert the amazon forest into a productive agricultural area with this practice of transforming the soil and were subsequently able to support more people living there than was thought. The takeaway here really resonates with me in thinking of the future and how we will adapt to climate change:

“If there is a lesson it is that to think like the original inhabitants of these lands we should not set our sights on rebuilding an environment from the past but concentrate on shaping a world to live in for the future”


picture of the amazon river in 1491

Another perspective-shifting revelation from Mann relates to my home state, Massachusetts. People from Boston and New England are proud of their independent spirit that overthrew the British and resulted in a country based on human liberty and equality. But Mann brings up the fact that, although the British settlers in New England were looking for a life with more freedom from the crown, these ideas may have come from, or at least were enforced by, the Northeastern Indians. At this point the settlers and Indians lived in close proximity and there was an exchange of goods and even people between the two groups, so why not ideas? These Indian nations were characterized by “a level of personal autonomy unknown in Europe” and their society was not divided into classes like the Europeans. The idea that some people could live in poverty while others lived lives of luxury baffled the Indians. And while some settlers held on to their European beliefs of hierarchy and obedience to the crown, there were many who came to prefer the Indian beliefs. Mann brings up that, when Indians were captured and brought up by settlers, they almost always returned to live with Indians when they were able but settlers that were brought up with Indians struggled to adapt back to their culture and many times chose to remain with the Indians as adults. This “competition” of values and lifestyle probably made New England society more free and equal than it would have been otherwise.

quote from 1491 by Charles C. Mann

The result of this mixing of values and preference for the Indian ones are shown in the system of government we ended up with. While Boston was founded to be a “city upon a hill” by a deeply religious John Winthrop, whose “social ideal was responsible adherence to a religiously inspired authority,” that ideal was not manifested.

“Instead of creating Winthrop’s vision of an ordered society,  the Pilgrims actually invented the raucous, ultra-democratic New England town meeting – a system of governance, the Dartmouth historian Colin Calloway observes, that ‘displays more attributes of Algonkian government by consensus than of Puritan government by the  divinely ordained.'”

Overall, this is a book that will make you question what you were taught about the origins of our continent and let you in on findings that are not exactly appearing on first-page news. Although the size and subject matter can be intimidating, Mann’s style, as I mentioned, is easy to follow and the content is approachable even for those of us who are not historians or archeologists. All this book requires is an interest in the history of the Americas and a mind that is open to questioning your perspective on history.

Next up, 1493, and learning about the effects of European conquest on America. Stay tuned to hear about the takeaways from that book.