I think I heard about this book on a podcast some time ago? I knew its precis: recent anthropological studies suggest that Native Americans lived all over this continent in vast numbers in the centuries before Columbus, scarcely resembling the image of here-and-there villages of tribesmen that both the author and I grew up with. (In the book’s introduction, Charles Mann describes his motivation for writing in the disgusted disappointment he felt when discovering his sons’ history textbooks filled with the same outdated falsehoods about pre-Columbian civilization that he’d been taught.)

Growing up in New England in the 1980s, I learned about American Indians primarily as the scattered bands sometimes friendly to “the Pilgrims” and other early European settlers, sometimes not. I had to memorize (for a brief time) the names of their many local tribes, with little attention given to their fate after the American Revolution. As an young adult in the 1990s, media like Dances with Wolves and the Alvin Maker novels created a guilt-ridden continuation of that story, casting these tribes as proud but doomed martyrs who lived sparsely on the American plains and accepted their fate nobly as rapacious westward-marching white men drove them, defenseless, to near-extinction. When I heard about 1491, I felt ready to learn about ancient Native Americans as anyone other than a people who made no mark on history besides dying cinematically.

Death still plays a huge and terrible role in the updated history that this book collects, but shifts it centuries before the era of Manifest Destiny. In short, archaeological evidence up and down the American continents — as well as written observations of middle-millenium visitors from Europe, studied with fresh eyes in a new light — suggests a new story of whole civilizations every bit as complex and populated as their Old World counterparts.

Likely descended from bands who walked east out of Asia prior to that hemisphere’s Neolithic Revolution, the peoples of ancient America had to start their own tech-tree from scratch, and they followed it along broadly recognizable but often fascinatingly divergent directions. If their engine of invention didn’t turn quite as fast as Europe’s, we can perhaps ascribe it to their having fewer diverse trading partners to mix ideas with. (Yes, I did read this book through the lens of an avid Civilization player. Look, it’s a great game.)

By the book’s titular year, the continents thrummed with a number of American Indian civilizations with their own histories, conflicts, and national ambitions. When Europeans show up, Mann casts the event as alien invasion: the people of the known world (from the Indians’ perspective) already had to deal with all the complex political drama of any functioning power, and now this? And for their part, the visitors had all sorts of motivations too; not all European visitors were stomping Conquistadors bent on subjugation. Many achingly tantalizing written records exist of trade and treaties between the two worlds; ancient Indians might not have had ocean-crossing technology, but they knew how international politics and diplomacy worked, infinitely more than the naive chumps I learned about as a kid.

But then, no matter how good or evil their individual intentions, the Europeans always unwittingly brought smallpox with them. Over the course of just a few generations it did what smallpox does to any dense human population with no natural resistance (or knowledge of germ theory). The handfuls of American natives that 20th century schoolchildren learned about were — modern records strongly suggest — post-apocalyptic survivors, a human remnant of what had been before.

Here lies a new and terrible tragedy: while American Indians live on as a people, their ancestors’ civilization — their whole new world of civilizations, whose unique histories and cultures should by all rights have traveled and traded and intermingled with Europe’s and Asia’s in ways we can only dream about? It died, it all died, robbing the world of something forever unknowable. Only lately do we start to understand these buried histories and lost potential better, and it’s amazing, and it hurts.

I really liked this book, written engagingly by someone with both a clear passion and a personal connection to the subject matter. Mann clearly followed a mandate to use an impressively broad range of sources from academic journals to interviews, and as often as possible includes work by and voices from modern Indians. I read an original edition from 2005, and am led to understand that more recent editions include updated material.

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Thank you for reading this post, written by me, Jason McIntosh.

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