Mann's basic premise is that the original peoples of the Americas were vastly more numerous, and their societies immensely more complex and advanced, than what most of us have been taught. There is also copious evidence to show that they were much older; there were advanced societies in this hemisphere for much longer than was previously believed.
A flood of new evidence pertaining to the pre-contact Americas - meaning, the Americas before European settlement - has been discovered, discussed and often hotly debated during the past 25-50 years. But, Mann says, almost none of it is has filtered down past specialist circles.
In his travels for writing and his own interest, Mann found himself stumbling on bits and pieces of this vast wealth of knowledge, all of it new to him and incredibly fascinating.
Gee, someone ought to put all this stuff together, I thought. It would make a fascinating book.
I kept waiting for that book to appear. The wait grew more frustrating when my son entered school and was taught the same things I had been taught, beliefs I knew had been sharply questioned. Since nobody else appeared to be writing the book, I finally decided to try it myself.
Generations of North Americans grew up learning that the indigenous people of North America were small bands of hunter-gatherers who lived lightly on the land. We know that the ancient peoples of Mexico, Central America and South America built great civilizations, because the Spanish conquistadors found (and destroyed) those societies, and their remains are still visible to us. But the famous ruins of the Inca, Maya, Aztecs and a few others are only a small fraction of the many diverse that cultures populated these lands.
North of the equator, we learned that pilgrims and settlers arrived on land that was pristine. Natural. Untouched. The people who lived there - we thought - lived simple lives, not shaping and changing their environment the way more complex societies did.
This is emphatically false.
The native peoples of the Americas - including what is now the US and Canada - actively shaped their environment, molded and influenced the land around them, just as ancient peoples did in Sumer, in the Indus and in China. These original Americans were around nearly as long, and they accomplished every bit as much. Mann gives us a glimpse of the many wonders they created - the technology, the inventions, the culture - and it is truly astonishing.
By now most of us know that the greatest contributor to the demise of the native people of the Americas was disease. There was a big assist from out-right slaughter, of course, but the number one genocidal killer was smallpox. Yet few of us realize the scope of the devastation.
At the time of contact, Europeans had already built up an immunity to smallpox, but were carriers of the disease. People in the Americas had no immunity; in addition, it's likely they were genetically predisposed to not develop one. The numbers - even the conservative estimates of death - are staggering. It was an all-out genocide, with all the social dislocation and deterioration that would naturally follow.
By the time of Plymouth and Jamestown (pardon my US-centric history here), disease had already depopulated the Americas. The pilgrims thought they were seeing an unpopulated wilderness. What they were seeing were the survivors of genocide. It's as if beings from another galaxy came to earth in 1945, landed in Auschwitz, and thought all humans were emaciated creatures in striped pajamas. So devastated were the people themselves, so utterly wiped out were their societies, that within a few generations, the descendants of the survivors didn't even know their former society had ever existed.
The enormous herds of buffalo, elk, and deer, the huge size and vast numbers of oysters, the billions of passenger pigeons that European settlers reported seeing were not nature in some pristine state. They were, in fact, evidence of ecosystems completely out of balance because their principal predator and means of population control had been removed.
Europeans who wrote accounts of their first glimpses of "the new world" had no way of knowing that what they saw was not what had always been. But the Indian population they encountered was a tiny fraction of survivors.
Much of the information Mann presents is still controversial among specialist scholars. He takes you through the outlines of several controversies, but always brings you back to the larger picture. For example, how many Indians - Mann uses "Indians" throughout, except where it is known what the people called themselves, and he explains why he made this choice - lived on these continents, pre-contact? How many people died from the number-one killer, smallpox? Was it 40 million, or 20 million? Who is right, the "High Counters" or the "Low Counters"? How can we know, what evidence is there?
After an overview of the different theories and the scope of the debate, Mann reminds us that, for our purposes, it doesn't matter. Either way, there were many more people than we previously realized.
To Fenn, the smallpox historian, the squabble over the number of deaths and the degree of blame obscures something more important. In the long run, Fenn says, the consequential finding of the new scholarship is not that many people died but that many people lived. The Americas were filled with an enthusiastically diverse assortment of peoples who had knocked about the continents for millennia. "We are talking about enormous numbers of people," she told me. "You have to wonder, Who were all these people? And what were they doing?"
Since Mann is reviewing and debunking our earlier notions about life in pre-contact Americas, 1491, by definition, deals with the history and sociology of science – how science is made, how society reacts, how politics and culture always influence what is known and disseminated. He offers evidence from physical anthropology, linguistics, genetics, the study of pollen, ice core samplings, and many more branches of scientific study. If you're an expert in any one of these fields, perhaps this book would seem overly reductionist. But for most of us, Mann is wonderfully adept at translating the science into more accessible terms.
As long-time readers of this blog know, I have an abiding interest in ancient civilizations, and a lifelong interest in the people of the Americas, especially of Mesoamerica and of Peru, the two cradles of civilizations in this hemisphere. So perhaps not everyone will find this book as compelling and fascinating as I did. But if you have any interest in the history of the land we inhabit - and if you enjoy exploding the myths of our stilted educations and learning something much more exciting, something much closer to the truth - and if you are interested in how we can know history, and what it can teach us, you will love this book.
Excerpts to follow.