10 Interesting Insights from “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”

1491 CoverBook: “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”

Author: Charles C. Mann

Published: July 2011

Why I Read this Book: I read this book because I am curious to learn more about the history of the Native peoples of the Americas, particularly because I believe the education most people receive in the United States education system today does not accurately reflect the true history very well.

#10InterestingInsights from “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”

According to the book…

1) New research suggests that Indians/Native Americans have been in the Americas longer than previously thought, in much larger numbers, and with much more impact on the environment.

“…I was taught that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait about thirteen thousand years ago, that they lived for the most part in small, isolated groups, and that they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation the continents remained mostly wilderness. Schools still impart the same ideas today. One way to summarize the views of people like Erickson and Balée would be to say that they regard this picture of Indian life as wrong in almost every aspect. Indians were here far longer than previously thought, these researchers believe, and in much greater numbers. And they were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly marked by humankind.”[1]

2) Similar to Insight # 1, many of the commonly held notions and stereotypes about how Native Americans lived over the past several thousand years are inaccurate, particularly in how they portray Native Americans’ level of “agency”, or their capacity of exerting power over their environment.

“For almost five centuries, Holmberg’s Mistake—the supposition that Native Americans lived in an eternal, unhistoried state—held sway in scholarly work, and from there fanned out to high school textbooks, Hollywood movies, newspaper articles, environmental campaigns, romantic adventure books, and silk-screened T-shirts. It existed in many forms and was embraced both by those who hated Indians and those who admired them. Holmberg’s Mistake explained the colonists’ view of most Indians as incurably vicious barbarians; its mirror image was the dreamy stereotype of the Indian as a Noble Savage. Positive or negative, in both images Indians lacked what social scientists call agency—they were not actors in their own right, but passive recipients of whatever windfalls or disasters happenstance put in their way.”[2]

3) Overall, there is a lot of new research (and there will continue to be) that is shedding light on what the Americas were like prior to European contact.

“One way to sum up the new scholarship is to say that it has begun, at last, to fill in one of the biggest blanks in history: the Western Hemisphere before 1492. It was, in the current view, a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere. Much of this world vanished after Columbus, swept away by disease and subjugation. So thorough was the erasure that within a few generations neither conqueror nor conquered knew that this world had existed. Now, though, it is returning to view. It seems incumbent on us to take a look.”[3]

4) There were some incredible empires in the history of the Americas, such as the Inkas, Triple Alliance, the Maya, and the Olmecs.

“In 1491, the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth.”[4]

“The Olmec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican societies were world pioneers in mathematics and astronomy…”[5]

“Tenochtitlan (the capital of the Triple Alliance) dazzled its invaders—it was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. Boats flitted like butterflies around the three grand causeways that linked Tenochtitlan to the mainland. Long aqueducts conveyed water from the distant mountains across the lake and into the city. Even more astounding than the great temples and immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens—none existed in Europe.”[6]

5) It is now believed that disease and political fragmentation were the primary reasons Europeans were able to take over so much of the Americas. In addition, foreign diseases had often arrived and afflicted Native American groups before the Europeans themselves even arrived, as well as after they arrived.

“…epidemic disease arrived before the first successful colonists. When the Europeans actually arrived, the battered, fragmented cultures could not unite to resist the incursion. Instead one party, believing that it was about to lose the struggle for dominance, allied with the invaders to improve its position. The alliance was often successful, in that the party gained the desired advantage. But its success was usually temporary and the culture as a whole always lost. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, this pattern occurred again and again in the Americas. It was a kind of master narrative of post-contact history. In fact, Europeans routinely lost when they could not take advantage of disease and political fragmentation.”[7]

 6) Connected to Insight #5, the foreign diseases were absolutely catastrophic to the Indians/Native Americans.

“The virus struck Tawantinsuyu (the Inka empire) again in 1533, 1535, 1558, and 1565. Each time the consequences were beyond the imagination of our fortunate age. ‘They died by scores and hundreds,’ recalled one eyewitness to the 1565 outbreak. ‘Villages were depopulated. Corpses were scattered over the fields or piled up in the houses or huts… The fields were uncultivated; the herds were untended [and] the price of food rose to such an extent that many persons found it beyond their reach. They escaped the foul disease, but only to be wasted by famine.’ In addition, Tawantinsuyu was invaded by other European pestilences, to which Indians were equally susceptible. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza in 1558 (together with smallpox), diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618, – all flensed the remains of Inka culture. Taken as a whole, Dobyns thought, the epidemics must have killed nine out of ten of the inhabitants of Tawantinsuyu.”[8]

7) Research suggests that these foreign diseases were so catastrophic due to the Indians/Native Americans being unusually susceptible to the viruses, as well as the grief and despair that they inflicted on the peoples.

“The first (susceptibility) is the lack of acquired immunity – immunity gained from a previous exposure to a pathogen… Most Europeans of the day had been exposed to smallpox as children, and those who didn’t die were immune. Smallpox and other European diseases didn’t exist in the Americas, and so every Indian was susceptible to them in this way.”[9]

“…Family and friends in Indian New England gathered at the sufferer’s bedside to wait out the illness, a practice that ‘could only have served to spread the disease more rapidly.’ Even the idea of contagion itself was novel. ‘We had no belief that one Man could give [a disease] to another’, the Blackfoot raider remembered, ‘any more than a wounded Man could give his wound to another.’ Because they knew of no protective measures, the toll was even higher than it would have been.”[10]

“As if by a flash of grim light, Indian villages become societies of widows, widowers, and orphans; parents lost their children, and children were suddenly alone. Rare is the human spirit that remains buoyant in a holocaust. ‘My people have been so unhappy for so long they wish to disincrease, rather than to multiply.’ A Paiute woman wrote in 1883.” [11]

8) There is a fascinating story behind the ritual of human sacrifice that was practiced by the Mexica people of the Triple Alliace. They created a myth that stated they were responsible for feeding the martial god Huitzilopochtli “chalchihuatl”, the fluid of life energy, in order to raise the sun each day, consequently saving humanity from death.

“There was but one method for obtaining this life-energy (chalchihuatl): ritual human sacrifice… Occasionally the victims were slaves and criminals, but mainly they were prisoners of war. In this way the sacred mission of the Triple Alliance became translated into a secular mission: to obtain prisoners to sacrifice for the sun, the Alliance had to take over the world. In Tlacaélel’s scheme, imperial conquests were key to ‘the moral combat against evil;” explained Miguel León-Portilla, a Mexican anthropologist who has devoted much of his career to analyzing Mexica thought. ‘The survival of the universe depended on them.’”[12]

9) Apparently, the ritual of human sacrifice practiced by the Mexica, which is often characterized as being quite barbaric, was not so different than the death-based rituals being practiced in Europe during the same period.

“(It is a myth) that in its appetite for death as a spectacle the Triple Alliance was fundamentally different from Europe. Criminals beheaded in Palermo, heretics burned alive in Toledo, assassins drawn and quartered in Paris—Europeans flocked to every form of painful death imaginable, free entertainment that drew huge crowds. London, the historian Fernand Braudel tells us, held public executions eight times a year at Tyburn, just north of Hyde Park… In most if not all European nations, the bodies were impaled on city walls and strung along highways as warnings…”[13]

“In their penchant for ceremonial public slaughter, the Alliance and Europe were more alike than either side grasped. In both places the public death was accompanied by the reading of ritual scripts. And in both the goal was to create a cathartic paroxysm of loyalty to the government—in the Mexica case, by recalling the spiritual justification for the empire; in the European case, to reassert the sovereign’s divine power after it had been injured by a criminal act.[14]

10) Humanity lost a significant volume in the library of the history of humankind, with the wide-scale disintegration of the Native American peoples resulting from European contact.

“Cut short by Cortés, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way… Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence—and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the disintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole.

“Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!”[15]

Closing Thoughts: Overall, this is a very enlightening book, and I would highly suggest it to others. It’s really fascinating how so many people living in the lands called the Americas know so little about the peoples that lived here for thousands of years before us. In fact, we often know more about other ancient civilizations in other parts of the world than the ones that once thrived on our own continent. This book helps shine a light on that history.

If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment!


[1] Page 4

[2] Page 15

[3] Page 31

[4] Page 74

[5] Page 23

[6] Page 143

[7] Page 104

[8] Page 105

[9] Page 116

[10] Page 125

[11] Page 125

[12] Page 136

[13] Page 136

[14] Page 137

[15] Page 140

2 thoughts on “10 Interesting Insights from “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”

  1. This is a subject I’ve also been interested in over the years, since it’s not really covered in history classes. One book I really enjoyed reading is called Open Veins of Latin America.

    • Right?? It’s so fascinating how much information about the history of the lands we call home is absent from the public education system! Hopefully over time, the history of the world, especially of colonization, will become more and more clear and more properly taught, as it has a profound impact on our current and future reality…

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