What did America look like before Columbus? Was the land wild and untamed or were the indigenous people farmers and city builders?
These are the question Charles Mann seeks to answer in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. For century the common myth is that South and North America was a wild land with very few people. Archaeology discoveries, however, disprove this theory and show that 1/5 of the people alive in the 16th century lived in the Americas (i.e. there was close to 100 million people in the Americas with the world population being about 500 million).
Sadly, disease and sickness (e.g. smallpox) brought over by Europeans killed large numbers of the indigenous people. In some places, 90% to 95% of the indigenous people died within a hundred years of Columbus’ first trip. This massive depopulation led to a restructuring of tribal cities, governments, farms, etc. It also allowed the Europeans to enter and settle the land without much resistance (though there was some, of course).
This isn’t a slam against the Europeans. Disease, viruses, and the like don’t care who you are; they are just bugs that seek to kill and harm.
The importance of this book is that it seeks to tell a better story of the indigenous people of the Americas. History as taught in the USA tends to be very much Eurocentric with very little space or time given to the indigenous people of the land. While I understand the desire to tell the history of Europe, I also think it is important to tell the story of the indigenous people. I am a byproduct of both worlds with European and indigenous blood flowing through my veins. As such, I want to know the history of both of my people. Which is why I picked up Mann’s book. =D
No matter who you are, I think you will enjoy this book.