Book Review: 1491


My favorite podcast is “Stuff You Should Know,” hosted by Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant. Well, Josh has this crazy-nerd obsession with the book 1491, by Charles C. Mann, and talks about it all the time.

Eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I decided I needed to read it. Obviously at 400 or so pages I can’t really summarize the whole book, but I thought it worthwhile to mention a few impactful things that I took away from it.

Most of us have a vague concept of a few small Native American tribes that existed in the Americas before Spanish, English and French settlers “discovered” the New World and quickly strong-armed their way to dominance.

Research has come a long way since then, as evidenced by the hundreds of books in the bibliography. Bottom line: We were educated pretty poorly and they have not updated the textbooks.

In the pre-Columbian, pre-“contact” Americas, there were as many as 100 million (possibly more) inhabitants from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. These societies were very diverse, and some were highly advanced and flourishing nicely, thank you very much.

The biggest factor that I took away was that when Europeans first made contact after tens of thousands of years of population separation, the lack of immunity to smallpox (in addition to other bacteria and viruses) quickly swept from east to west, north to south, eradicating as much as 90-95% of the native population. Yes. Read that again. Up to 90+%.

Think about that for a second. Had smallpox not decimated the population, a small settlement of a few hundred people at a time–even with guns and horses–never would have been able to take over the land in a few hundred years.

Now on to what, exactly, was wiped out. We mostly think of Indians (as they still refer to themselves–everyone the author talked to did not use or like the term “Native American”) as leaving no ecological trace and living lightly on the land, hardly turning so much as a leaf in nature. In fact, advanced farming techniques and extensive use of fire to shape the landscape was the norm.

When we think of the East Coast today, dense forests are the de facto landscape. But when the first settlers made their way through this are in the 16th and 17th centuries, the woods were cleared of all underbrush, such that a “four-horse carriage could easily drive through them,” reminiscent of the parks in England. This was due to regular use of fire throughout a fairly densely populated region.

Even more mind-blowing (to me) was the section about Amazonia. You think of this as untouched wilderness of dense tree canopy and zillions of creatures. But as recent archeology has found, extensive charcoal layers prove out that–in this case–not fire but charcoal was used to enrich the very poor Amazonian soil and create a nutrient-rich topsoil for orchards. Many of the trees even in existence today are actually edible because they were planted in pre-contact groves for food. Mind! Blown!

On to probably my favorite ancient society described in the book: the Inca (or Inka). Situated along the spine of the Andes in modern-day Peru (and beyond), the Inca were the most sophisticated pre-Columbian society. Interestingly, they only advanced to this level shortly before being conquered by the Spanish, with about a 100-year rein of their peak civilization.


(Machu Picchu in modern-day Peru, built ca. 1450. Martin St-Amant/Creative Commons)

The crazy thing is that they did not have the wheel, steel tools or weapons, draft animals, or a system of writing.

Nonetheless, they built incredible stone structures, advanced farms at every elevation, a road network 25,000 miles long, cable bridges made of grass fibers that could hold an entire team of llamas, and communicated over long distances using a sort of human-on-foot pony express.

Check out this video of the only remaining grass bridge, which Incan descendants rebuild annually:

Knotted strings called khipu (or quipu) were the closest thing they had to writing. I recently got to see one in person (fangirl moment!) at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. They had an exhibit running called “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire,” where I spent hours poring over every display (photo by me).


Imagine if your only way to convey information over distances was via knots on strings? About 90% of the translation can be attributed to a base-10 counting system, representing numbers. The rest is completely unknown. Unfortunately there is no Rosetta Stone (early Spanish translation directly from talking to Incans).

Incredible feats of terracing made farming the steep mountainsides possible from extremely high elevations right down to sea level. Maize, potatoes and quinoa provided plentiful food throughout the climate zones that could be traded if one crop had a bad year.


(Farming terraces at Macchu Picchu. Creative Commons)

The system of roads made quick travel possible up and down steep stretches, even with a caravan of llamas in tow. Impressive stone structures were so well-built that “not a knife blade could fit between the stones,” and they survived many earthquakes in the region to this day, even with no mortar.

Another point that really got under my skin was the question as to WHEN. WHEN did people get here? The story of 1,000 people crossing the Bering Straight land bridge from Russia/Asia during the last Ice Age exactly 12,000 years ago before it closed back up as the ice melted–followed by people populating the Americas right down to the southern tip of Argentina within 1,000 years–isn’t as air-tight as we were lead to believe.

The so called “Clovis cultures” (defined by the Clovis archeological dig arrow heads) were believed to be the oldest evidence of human activity in the Americans. The search for Paleo Indians (pre-Clovis) has been met with fierce resistance for some reason, and evidence of more ancient societies has been refuted intensely. However, it does appear that the first cultures existed anywhere from 40,000-20,000 years ago. Certainly seafaring  cultures existed long ago, so this is possible. It’s something I’m very interested in reading more about.

In conclusion … there is no conclusion. I am currently reading Mann’s book 1493 (about the effects of Columbus and those who came after him) and have ordered four more books about the pre-contact inhabitants of the Americas, how they got there and when, and archeological finds from their societies.

Did you ever think about this? What do you think about it now? I encourage you to read 1491 if even one thing I mentioned seemed interesting to you!

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