Book Review – 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus


I recently finished Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and wanted to do a quick book review.

As the title indicates, this is a book about what the civilizations of the American continent were like before Columbus arrived. The book is based on the most current research on the subject, though I must warn you that even our best most recent research seems quite tentative to me, as the author often admits. But here are some interesting new directions that seem worthy of note.

Population of the Americas – The Impact on the Environment

One recent claim is that the population of the Americas prior to Columbus’ arrival was much large than early estimates. The legendary view of the American Indians (the author uses the word “Indian” throughout and explains why this is the preferred term) is that of a small group of humans at one with the land. Not true, claims the author. First of all, there was apparently a massive small pox endemic after the Europeans accidently brought it here. Apparently even they didn’t realize they had done it. The net result was a massive drop in population that also collapsed many of the civilizations that existed. Imagine if 1 in 10 people in America suddenly died off from a plague. How disruptive would that be to our civilization? Now imagine if it has been the other way around: 1 in 10 surviving. Some researches think it might have been that serious. However, the evidence isn’t strong here, so we don’t really know how bad the small pox plague was, but we do know it was very disruptive to the Indian civilizations.

Prior to the arrival of Columbus the Indians seem to have developed some considerable technologies for how to change the environment for their own sake. One of the more fantastic claims is that the Amazon forest is actually human created – a sort of gigantic garden. If this is true (and of course the evidence is mixed) then calls to leave it alone will turn out to be misguided. It would be like leaving a garden alone to grow naturally.

The Indians also may have used a fire burning method to change the landscape to their liking without destroying everything. In short, the myth that the Indians were at one with nature is probably not as true as we believed. However, we may have to instead think of them as being the greatest gardeners that ever lived.

Mann also points out that the Indians created Maize apparently out of ancestral plants that are nothing like them. It may be one of the greatest genetic engineering feats in the history of the world.

Arrival of Indians in Neolithic Age

It would appear that the first ancestors of the American Indians probably arrived 20,000 to 30,000 years ago during the last ice age. The old view that they came across the Bering Strait 13,000 years ago is starting to die out. The book even cites evidence that the American continent may have been inhabited long before ‘the old world’ of Europe was. (I’m not clear on how this is possible, but that’s what he claimed.)

I couldn’t help but think of the Book of Mormon here. Anti-Mormons hold this up as a serious flaw for The Book of Mormon. Actually, this isn’t much of a problem for The Book of Mormon at all. LDS Scholars had actively been arguing for a limited geography model with the Lehite tribes mingling in (over time) with a larger group of people for decades prior to the latest DNA evidence being discovered. In fact, those limited geographic models had seemed necessary both because of outside evidence (i.e. too many Indian languages or the larger population estimates of recent years, for example) and because of inside evidence (i.e. the Book of Mormon insists the land was quite small, travelable from end to end in short periods of time.) The recent DNA evidence actually brought nothing new to the table that wasn’t already a problem for The Book of Mormon and hadn’t already been responded to via the limited geography model.

Interestingly, author Orson Scott Card, long before the DNA evidence, had actually argued that the Mulekites were not Jewish but rather they adopted that as a tribal myth once they came across the Nephites. This explains why there were so many of them, according to the Book of Mormon, and also why their language had changed seemingly so quickly. (His take was they were Jaredite remnants, however.)

While the recent DNA evidence and migration models pose little problem for The Book of Mormon, unfortunately they cause massive carnage to the Bible’s story of Adam of Eve as presently constituted because the primary ancestors of the American Indians are then pre-Adamites. There is going to have to be new thinking on that subject, either placing Adam and Eve much further back in time than the Bible (both OT and NT) claims, or making them not the Father and Mother of the primary Indian ancestors. Mormons will be able to claim that they only believed in the Bible ‘as far as it is translated correctly’ anyhow. Biblical Inerrantists have a lot of explaining to do. Strange that Evangelical anti-Mormons never seem to notice how often their own anti-Mormon arguments are a suicide bomb that goes off no where near Mormons.

Indian Technology vs. European Technology

Mann challenges the idea that the Europeans has superior technology and superior weapons compared to the Indians. He points out that Indian bows shot further, more accurately, and did more kinetic damage than firearms of that era. John Smith reported that he destroyed his own gun when captured by Indians so that they would have a chance to test it out and figure out it wasn’t as powerful as seemed. Mann argues that the real impact of guns was invisible projectiles and loud noises.

When it came to metallurgy, Mann argues that the Indians were as advanced as the Europeans, but that they were more interested in adornments rather then hard metals.

Also, when it came to large boats, the Europeans had the edge. But for smaller boats, the Indians technology was superior.

Indian Culture vs. European Culture

The Europeans had a class system while the Indians were often early democracies based on personal freedom. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Europeans were far more likely to defect to Indian society rather than the other way around.

I wasn’t fully convinced by this evidence because Mann gives far too many stories of corrupt empires and kings amongst the Indians and I’m generally distrustful of anecdotal evidence. However, I find it fascinating that it’s possible that the democracies of the new world may have arisen in part because the European nations had to tread lightly with the Americans because they were surrounded by democratic societies that they could defect to if their kings became too oppressive. Mann argues that this might have led to the increasing freedoms in America until finally they revolted. Of course the fact that they lived so far away during an era without telephones (you know, those things that act like cell phones but are plugged into walls?) might have had something to do with it too.

White Guilt

The book doesn’t spend much time on this, but I thought it was humorous how it treated it. Two theories about the Indians (ones that book does not buy into) are the displacement hypothesis and the overkill hypothesis. Taken together, they essentially mean that the Indians came across the Bering strait and destroyed the earlier inhabitants and then went on to cause mass extinction of all the animals (horses, elephants, etc.) there.

This theory is problematic to some because it basically exonerates whites of guilt. Oh yeah, and it’s questionable science too.

However, the bottom line is that there is ample evidence that the white people did nothing but what everyone else was doing at the time. Indian society was often quite brutal and conquering everyone else was common. Besides, the book argues, the real reason the Europeans were able to conquer the Indians was actually because they brought small pox and not because of any advanced technology. Therefore, they Europeans weren’t even aware of what they had done to the Indians.

The book suggests that in place of white guilt we take on ‘white responsibility.’ It’s not modern white people’s fault, nor technically even their ancestors (since they didn’t even have a clue at the time what they were doing.) And frankly they just aren’t more guilty than anyone else at the time. Yet, the end result was that Europeans did accidently cause mass damage to Indian society through small pox and did rub out that culture from the world. So it was their responsibility and we can take responsibility for it too.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

7 thoughts on “Book Review – 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

  1. There was just a big show on Discovery Channel or History about the colonization of America and they went over many theories about how people got to America (including a brief description of the Book of Mormon story). There is good evidence that humans have been getting to America from diverse directions for thousands of years before the Bering Strait, as you mention. The old theories about how humans got to America, how they interacted with the land, the Pleistocene extinctions, etc. are all now looking way overly simplistic as we gather new information. And you’re right that all of this only strengthens the Mormon position on many issues. Thanks for the review, I look forward to reading it.

  2. Bruce, I think it’s important to point out that there is a wide variation from tribe to tribe in the Americas. The Aztecs were relatively advanced, but many smaller tribes in North America and South America were not. You could make a strong argument that some of the smaller North American tribes were as different from the Aztecs as the Europeans were. Making uniform claims about pre-Columbian Indians is problematic.

    This might be a good time to mention the book, “He Walked the Americas.” A non-Mormon anthropologist finds very interesting folk legend evidence that a beared white man appeared to different indigenous tribes in the 1st century AD.

  3. Here’s one thing that’s always mystified me. If you can see Russia from Sarah Palin’s yard (at least one of Russia’s islands), then it’s simply impossible to believe that Siberians for thousands of years had no knowledge of a great body of land to the east. How is it possible that China, for example, during her imperial periods of expansion and power, did not know of this land? I find it baffling. Surely many in East Asia knew of America over thousands of years, but for one reason or another it did not become a part of history. If you think about how, for example, the Islanders crossed the Pacific, or various ethnic groups crossed the Indonesian islands, or the islands of the Mediterranean – this is simply baffling.

    Back to the book’s thesis, surely there were innumerable crossings to and from America over the centuries.

  4. I read this a few years ago and thought it was pretty great.

    You mentioned the possibility that Indians carefully managed ecosystems on huge scales. Was it Mann who discussed carrier pigeons and bison? The argument I remember is that early European descriptions of virtually unlimited flocks of pigeons or herds of bison reflected population booms due to the smallpox-induced demographic collapse rather than some untainted Eden-like state.

    Geoff, I suggest you read the book. I never felt like Mann was too sweeping or too general. He rather focuses on particular peoples and the ways they may have managed the land.

    The Aztecs were relatively advanced, but many smaller tribes in North America and South America were not.

    Mann confronts this deeply-set notion directly. For example it was this book that introduced me to Terra Preta, which may hint at a mind-bogglingly extensive Amazonian culture.

  5. Geoff,

    In all honesty, I read the book a while back, wrote this review at the time, and finally got around to publishing it. So my memory isn’t what it used to be. I think Ben’s statements are probably accurate.

    The author does make a point that much of everything we ‘know’ is speculative. So my post is reporting what the book said, not The Truth.

    When it comes to technology comparisions, he is, effectively, comparing the top technological civilizations of both continents. I’m sure neither continent had a consistent level of technology.

  6. A few thoughts on the idea of the Chinese discovering America:

    There has been some speculation that some Chinese ships did just that. But there aren’t any compelling artifacts to confirm that through archaeology, and there isn’t much written about it to confirm it through history. Even if the Chinese were capable of sending ships on such a voyage, it doesn’t naturally follow that they did. Remember also that while Alaska and Siberia are very close (and the waters up there aren’t very accommodating for wooden sailing vessels), most of Asia and North America are separated by thousands of miles of ocean, and when people have to choose whether to devote their attention to several neighboring countries or to vast uncharted seas, there’s little question which seems more important.

    Quite honestly, humans aren’t very curious people. There are exceptions, of course; they do things like explore unknown lands, climb mountains, invent things, etc. But look at how many civilizations there have been in the world, and how few of them have engaged in ambitious enterprises in exploration. Rome, Egypt, Japan, Persia, you name it; hardly anyone had any interest in striking out further than the territory of their immediate neighbors. It wasn’t until the Portuguese and Spanish decided to circumvent Arab spice traders and get the goods at their source that exploration on a serious scale took place. We know the Vikings discovered North America 500 years before Columbus did, but it didn’t really mean anything to them or to anyone else who heard about it.

  7. I just got done watching a show on the History Channel that talked about this exact subject of who discovered the Americas. They did mention the Book of Mormon and talked about it seriously rather than dismissing it with a snicker. The conclusion was still that that it didn’t according to evidence take place and would have taken a year and a half if it did happen. However, the technology at the time of Lehi was available in ship building that could survive the voyage. Its the people that would have perished because of the length of time needed. After listening to that portion of it my own thoughts are that the Book of Mormon is very clear the ship was modified different than the surrounding engineering. Also, that there were worries about the time it was taking and a storm surge might have reduced the time required. The show didn’t mention the even earlier travels of what I consider Asiatic Jaredites.

    Another interesting part of the show is that many Native American tribes from both continents claim they came from other cultures beyond the expected. It doesn’t matter if its Japan, Europe, or as in the case of the Cherokee Israel. Not enough DNA evidence supports more than the traditional scientific Bering Straight theory, but there is enough cultural and archeology evidence to put those results into question. Besides, even the DNA evidence has anomalies that ask when and not if there is mixed blood. Five of the experts interviewed who believed in pre-columbian or even pre-viking voyages to America were professors and not amateurs. Two of them worked at the Smithsonian. It is still a small group, but the consensus theory that all Native Americans came from ancestors of one group of people is slowly chipping away.

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