This started as a review of Charles Mann’s 1491, but it became more about the flights of fancy it gave me than about the book itself. It’s the most intriguing, mind-bending, and thought-provoking book I’ve read in years. Many thanks to Nelson, who turned me on to it.

Two caveats up front:

First, I give away many mysteries revealed in the book. If you’re allergic to spoilers, read it first, but you don’t have to worry. Each mystery just sprouts a dozen more when it’s uncovered, and I only touch part of the story here. Also, in this case, the angel’s in the details. I highlighted over a hundred passages, more than I’ve ever highlighted in a Kindle book, sometimes attaching comments of slack-jawed wonder and speculation.

Second, a quick aside about words: A legacy of unacceptable terms burdens this history. They’re based in ignorance and misunderstanding at best and racist notions of superiority at their worst. “Indian” is the ridiculous poster child. Mann confronts this in an appendix. He says it’s still the best shorthand we have for the vast tapestry of diverse cultures that existed in the Western Hemisphere. So I’ll use it, too. I’ll also call Europe the “East” since that makes the most sense in this context.

What we’ve discovered


Genetic studies are finding that Indians were far more susceptible to European diseases than we thought. The epidemics that happened here are likely to be unequaled in human history. As a result, estimates of pre-contact populations have skyrocketed. The numbers are under heated contention. Some researchers suggest death tolls up to 95%; others call that outrageous. Regardless, the consensus agrees there were far, far more people here than we believed. The West may have been more densely settled than Europe. The most populated areas of Central and South America only reached their pre-contact populations again in the 20th century.

The first Europeans to arrive here described bustling cities and towns, vast irrigated farmlands, and sophisticated cultures thriving in places as inhospitable as the Amazon basin. Their accounts were dismissed as fairy tales for centuries. Now, they’re being accepted as more and more accurate, the more we uncover. Referring to colonial census records that have long been called impossible exaggerations, two historians noted, “Sixteenth-century Europeans did indeed know how to count.”

At the same time that whole nations were being depopulated, the environment was undergoing a similar convulsion as it incorporated European flora and fauna that had never been part of it before. Some plants and animals perfectly adapted to life here had no defense against the newcomers, which spread over the land like a cancer. Others that had existed in a delicate balance as competitors with these were set free like the top had popped off a jack-in-the-box, and their populations exploded. Causes and effects ricocheted back-and-forth in swift chain reactions, deforming the landscape in shockingly fast evolutionary time.

Our modern minds naturally go to our own parallel image of people straggling through a crumbling wasteland. It’s like the sixteenth century blanketed the hemisphere with nuclear bombs. With no one left to clear and tend the land, it quickly became overgrown and unrecognizable, just as we imagine our cities turned to piles of ivy-choked rubble.

When I was in school, we learned that when the European settlers followed the early explorers, they found small groups of people living a primitive life they’d always lived, in an ancient forest. Now we’re learning that the forest was new and the people were the survivors of an apocalypse, wandering stunned through the grotesque remains of their farms and orchards.

Indian accomplishments

Besides being more densely populated than we’d thought, the West was inhabited for much longer. We now know people were living all over both continents for thousands of years. As one historian asks, what were they doing all that time?

Just as anywhere else, they were creating cultures, struggling through their declines, and building something new out of elements of the past and out of borrowings from their neighbors, over and over again. We have only the dimmest understanding of this expansive history. Mesoamerica alone created over a dozen writing systems, some of which we know only from a single scrap of text. Older and smaller cultures are completely gone (their history possibly recorded by their successors, then lost in Spanish bonfires). It’s as though Greece and Egypt were just wiped off the face of history.

From what little is left, bit by bit, we’re uncovering a record of staggering achievements. Some Western cultures developed political and economic systems we don’t even have names for. We’re uncovering more and more of their artistic and architectural masterworks. We’ve been stunned for over a century by the rediscovery of the depth and precision of their mathematical and astronomical knowledge.

But they may have done their greatest and most impressive work in a field we barely think about: agricultural science. We’re tracing the threads of the centuries-long breeding projects which led to maize and its many varieties. We’re studying the hydroponic systems which allowed the great city of Tenochtitlan to grow in the middle of a lake. Above all, we’re puzzling over how people were able to farm and occupy the Amazon basin, something we still can’t do today and are trying to figure out how they did.

People in the South genetically engineered the crops they needed and constructed massive terraces and earthworks to cultivate them. In the North, rather than domesticate animals, they transformed the land to encourage the migration and occupation of the species they wanted to hunt. Everywhere you look, you find people inventing unique and brilliant solutions to the problems their environment posed.

We’ve had a blindness toward these kinds of achievements. They were so different from our approaches that we looked right past them. Instead, we measured Indians against what we considered important. When we found they hadn’t discovered gunpowder or built carriages (which they had no animals large enough to pull), we branded them “primitives” who had nothing to teach us. The first Indians to meet Europeans had no reason to trust them and share their most important knowledge. The first Europeans to meet Indians were looking for gold, not an exchange of ideas. By the time later waves of colonists came, there was no one left to talk to the ones willing to listen. As we try to figure out how to feed seven billion people, there are plenty of scientists who would love to talk to them now.

Some mysteries may remain forever just out of reach. We’ve decoded 90% of the written Mayan language, but an appendix details the ongoing debate about what the Inca recordkeeping/writing system even is. Even worse, what we know we lost is the tip of the iceberg of what we’ll never know even existed.

Just as when Rome fell, much important knowledge was lost in a few generations. But this time, we don’t have a written record to be rediscovered in a Western Renaissance. Colonial administrators proudly reported emptying Indian libraries and destroying hundreds, possibly thousands of books to stamp out their “pagan heresies”. What works of literature, history, and science went up in flames forever? The loss of the Library of Alexandria doesn’t begin to compare. We’re all — not just Indians — eternally and immeasurably impoverished by the epidemics that left no one to protect and preserve Indian cultures.

Odds and ends

Plan B

Speaking of losing by Indian deaths, I was surprised by the varied reactions of Europeans to the carnage happening around them. While some hailed the plagues as proof of God’s will for Europeans to take over the land, most were appalled. Some were filled with genuine horror and anguish that they could do nothing to stop the suffering. Many more were dismayed by what it meant to them, not to Indians. They saw it as an economic crisis, not a humanitarian one.

I’d never thought about it, but of course the original plan was to conquer the land and enslave the people who were already there to exploit it. The African Slave Trade was a costly Plan B adopted when the Indians died off. The Conquistadors fought to save Indian lives the same way Confederates would fight to “save” Africans in the American Civil War — not to save them as people, but to keep them as property.

Indian views of Europeans

I was delighted to read the reactions of the North American Indians who met the first colonists. We’ve read plenty of European references to life among the “heathen savages”. It’s refreshing to hear the impression made on the other side, one formed from their actual interactions, and not preconceptions. We’ve seen the immigrants pictured as The Brave Pilgrims on every third grade classroom wall. The Indians’ opinion probably hit closer to the truth. They got to know them, and found them filthy, uncouth, and unethical.

What could have happened

When we know how a story ends, especially a story as one-sided as the European subjugation of the Indian nations, we can just take the outcomes as given. But they were by no means inevitable. I’ve always thought of Indian peoples as being overwhelmed by men sweeping in with military technology they’d never seen and couldn’t counter, a War of the Worlds scenario. In truth, like people anywhere who have lived in a place for millennia, they had an amazing technological sophistication suited to their environment. And they were certainly adaptable. The blitzkrieg over their land had less to do with European superiority than with the fact that the Europeans were invading depopulated nations in political and spiritual chaos. It would be like the difference between trying to invade Germany in 1936 and Germany in 1946.

Indians never had their own dark ages. Multiple empires rose and fell across two entire continents. They never had a pervasive monoculture like Rome whose fall could leave a vacuum everywhere. Many Indian civilizations were at the height of their powers. If the Europeans had had to face the full might of the West as it existed in 1491, they would have had a very different fight on their hands. The Indians could have bred horses faster than the Europeans could have brought them over on ships. They could have bought guns from black market traders (as Indians did in the American West 400 years later) until they learned to make their own with the plentiful natural resources they had on hand.

What if arriving European armies had had to go to war against Iroquois cavalry, Mayan sharpshooters, and Inca cannons, on their own turf, when they themselves had to be resupplied from the other side of the Atlantic? As Alfred Crosby points out in another context, I doubt whether I’d be living here and writing this in a European language.

This might be the greatest tragedy that ever derailed the progress of human culture. Humanity developed for thousands of years in two separate worlds, each with no idea the other existed. (Asia at least had some contact with Europe and Africa.) When they finally met, one side was almost instantly destroyed.

Smallpox could be the single greatest actor in the drama of human history, setting the global culture back to an extent we can’t imagine. It’s not just a tragedy for the millions who died, but for everyone. In many ways, it would have been the perfect time for the two worlds to meet. Europe was finally emerging from its own apocalypse after centuries of sitting in the rubble of Rome. How much richer would the Renaissance have been with the influx of ideas from the Americas? What could have happened if East and West had met as equals? If European mathematicians had been able to collaborate with Mayan ones? Or if Shakespeare had read Aztec poetry, and Michelangelo studied the art of all the western nations?

And what would have happened when Indians learned to build ocean-going vessels and sailed west to China? Questions like this make science fiction superfluous.

My mind keeps straying back to daydreams like this. When I jump in the ocean, I wonder who was splashing around here two and three and four millennia ago. How different were they from us, and how similar? What did they know? What stories fired their imaginations and ordered their lives? How did they see this world we’ve now overrun?

I would love to see someone make a documentary based on 1491, both to reach a wider audience and to let us see the amazing sites I was constantly looking up on Google Images. In the meantime, the sequel is already purchased and waiting on my Kindle.

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