Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, July 22, 2006

1491: The Truth About the Americas Before Columbus

by Benjamin Dangl

ZNet Commentary (July 09 2006)

In many high school history classes students are told that before Columbus arrived the Americas were full of untamed wilderness loosely populated with savage Indians. Charles Mann's book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus proves that the opposite is true.

He draws from recent archeological and scientific discoveries to describe booming civilizations which thrived throughout the Americas centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Like Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States this book made me want to call up my old history teachers and tell them they were very wrong. In fact, Mann's self-described thesis is to show that indigenous societies before the arrival of Columbus deserve more than a few misleading pages in a textbook.

Mann was able to hold my attention not just with the details of complex indigenous societies, but also with controversies, adventures and divisions among the scientists and archeologists which have contributed to what we know of pre-Columbian history. Not only is he able to make squabbles between European archeologists interesting, but he's able to smoothly describe scientific data and Mayan politics in the same breath.

The book is brimming with shocking information like the fact that the city of Tiwanaku, in what is now Bolivia, had 115,000 people living in it in 1000 AD, a population that Paris would not reach for five centuries. Among other surprises we learn that Pocahontas means "little hellion" and there are less people living in the Amazon now than there were in 1491. Mann points out that the British and French, not the indigenous people, were the savages. The Europeans arriving in North America smelled horrible; some of them had never taken a bath their whole lives. On the other hand, the indigenous people were generally very clean, strong and well nourished.

The first section of the book deals largely with new revelations about the sicknesses such as small pox and Hepatitis A which ravaged the native populations of the Americas shortly after the arrival of the Europeans. The death toll is as surprising as the size of the populations before Columbus. When Columbus landed, there were an estimated 25 million people living in Mexico. At the time, there were only ten million people in Spain and Portugal. Central Mexico was more densely populated than China or India when Columbus arrived. An estimated 90-112 million lived in the Americas, which was a larger population than that of Europe. Mann also pointed out that the Incas ruled the biggest empire on earth ever. In their prime, the kingdom's span equaled the distance between Saint Petersburg and Cairo.

The bloodshed unleashed by the Europeans had a lot do with killing off of these populations. Yet sickness played perhaps an even larger role. Smallpox hit the Andes before Spain's Pizarro did, killing off most people and plunging the area into civil war. The sickness is thought to have arrived to the region from the Caribbean. Hepatitis A killed off an estimated ninety percent of the population in coastal New England in three years. Within first years of European contact, 95% of native populations died. These numbers seem hard to believe, but Mann's exhausting research draws from decades of investigations from dozens of scientists and archeologists.

While reading this book, I realized how inaccurate it is to describe the Americas as the "New World". Nothing could be further from the truth. The Americas were inhabited by people twenty to thirty thousand years ago. Europe, on the other hand, was occupied by humans more recently, eighteen thousand years ago at the most.

This book proves that the wilderness in the Americas before the Europeans arrived was far from wild and untouched by humans. Mann argues that pre-Columbus wilderness was totally affected and shaped by the native people that lived there. For example, the Mayans destroyed their own environment; they cut down too many trees and exhausted the soil. As their population expanded the environment and agriculture could no longer sustain them. This greatly contributed to their collapse.

Other indigenous groups altered their ecosystems to facilitate their survival. Societies in the Amazon regularly burned down vast expanses of the forest; the charred soil was good for agriculture and the fire flushed out animals for food. The plains the US are believed to be a result of similar forest-burning techniques. Indigenous hunters before Columbus sought out pregnant animals to lower the population; indigenous people competed with animals for food, berries and nuts. Indigenous societies also built vast canals, cities, irrigation systems, large agricultural fields, entirely changing the wilderness for human use.

When the first European explorers passed over the Mississippi they saw millions of bison and other animals. This was not because indigenous people didn't hunt them. In fact, these animal populations were large because their predators, the indigenous people, had been killed off by European sicknesses. Similarly, the death from these sicknesses allowed ecosystems to thrive without the impact of humans until the European colonies expanded. What Europeans actually saw when they fully explored and settled in "wilder" regions was the death of the landscape shaped by indigenous cultures.

Though I was in awe of such revelations and the vast research Mann put into the book, I couldn't help but wonder about his sources. I know that most indigenous societies did not have any extensive written history, and so much of what is known about their day to day life, culture, wars and religion is guesswork. Mann's book is based primarily on research, analysis and theories from Europeans and North Americans. Perhaps this reflects the academic, scientific and archeological world more than it does Mann's approach. However, I wanted to hear more from contemporary Mayan, Mapuche, Incan and Aymara people about their own versions of this history, people who still practice these ancient politics, customs and religions. Stories and histories exist among descendent of these civilizations, but Mann doesn't draw from them enough.

My wariness of his choice of sources increased when he described visiting ruins in Peru and commented on a "curious sight":

"... [S]kulls from the cemetery, gathered into several small piles. Around them were beer cans, cigarette butts, patent-medicine bottles, half-burned photographs and candles shaped like naked women. These last had voodoo pins stuck in their heads and vaginas. Local people came to these places at night and either dug for treasure or practiced witchcraft, Haas [Mann's archeologist friend] said. In the harsh afternoon light they seemed to me tacky and sad."

This sounds similar to the kind of disdain the Spanish looked upon indigenous religions when they first arrived. How does Mann know that this "witchcraft" isn't a modern day version of what the Incas practiced? Instead of ancient broken pottery and gold jewelry, he found beer bottles and photographs. Why does he immediately dismiss this as "tacky and sad"? Could this "witchcraft" serve as a gateway to understanding ancient Andean religions? Elsewhere in the book he criticizes locals who rob from the ruins to sell gold and artifacts to feed their families. I'd say that gold is put to better use feeding a family than sitting in a museum. Observations such as these from Mann made me think even more about the millions of indigenous voices left out of this book about indigenous societies.

None the less, it deserves to be required reading in high schools along with the many other books which have taken on the "official" histories of the hemisphere.

Charles Mann's book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is available on


Benjamin Dangl is the editor of, a website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. He is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, forthcoming in March of 2007 from AK Press. He recently won a Project Censored Award for his coverage of US military operations in Paraguay.

Bill Totten


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