three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
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New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

A-1491Acclaimed science writer Mann embarked on 1491 when he found out that his son was being taught the same shopworn stories about Christopher Columbus and his "discovery" of America that he had learned as a child. Mann set out to explode both the Eurocentric belief that the pre-Columbian Americas were sparsely populated by primitive savages and the politically correct rebuttal that Native Americans lived in an environmental utopia. Drawing on scholarship in history, anthropology, and archeology, Mann writes that the late 15th-century Americas were more populous than Europe and included highly advanced societies that radically engineered the land. Smallpox carried by the European explorers devastated many of them, which is why later settlers like the Pilgrims found a continent resembling the forest primeval.
Knopf. 471 pages. $30. ISBN: 140004006X

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Mann has written a landmark of a book that drops ingrained images of colonial America into the dustbin one after the other, such as that of the Pilgrims finding a pristine world of woodlands and guileless natives. . . . It would be wrong to call this book revisionist, as Mann notes, because what he has done is resurrect a view of indigenous American civilization that the first wave of Europeans shared." Roger Atwood

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"In 1491, he has crafted a must-read survey course of pre-Columbian history—current, meticulously researched, distilling volumes into single chapters to give general readers a broad view of the subject. He has visited many of the sites he includes and spoken with the diggers and the scholars who are working them." John J. Monaghan

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"This is all good sport and entertaining for a reader who wants a ringside seat in a very current and evolving dispute. Mann’s color commentary sets the right tone: scholarly but hip." Bill Duryea

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is his first solo gig and his best work, reminiscent of John McPhee’s eloquence with scientific detail and Jared Diamond’s paradigm-shifting ambition. Mann integrates carbon-14 dating, genomic analysis, ancient texts, archeological inferences from excavated rats’ nests and more into a concise and brilliantly entertaining thesis. I don’t agree with all his big conclusions, but 1491 makes me think of history in a new way." Jim Rossi

San Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mann has produced a book that’s part detective story, part epic and part tragedy. He has taken on a vast topic: thousands of years, two huge continents, and cultures that range from great urban complexes to small clusters of villages, a diversity so rich that our shorthand word for the people who inhabited the Americas—‘Indians’—has never seemed more inadequate or inaccurate." Charles Matthews

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Mann naturally centers his investigation on findings in anthropology and archaeology, but one also wishes for a bigger interpretive boost from economics, sociology and, especially, epidemiology. . . . But Mann has chronicled an important shift in our vision of world development, one our young children could end up studying in their textbooks when they reach junior high." Mary D’Ambrosio

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Mann’s style is journalistic, employing the vivid (and sometimes mixed) metaphors of popular science writing. . . . Initially fresh, the journalistic approach eventually falters as his disorganized narrative rambles forward and backward through the centuries and across vast continents and back again, producing repetition and contradiction." Alan Taylor

Critical Summary

Like all creation myths, the story of America’s discovery by Columbus endures no matter how improbable it now seems. Mann, a correspondent for Science and The Atlantic Monthly and coauthor of four previous books, dives right into this thorny topic—one fraught with political tension and intertwined with a nation’s identity—with no agenda other than the journalist’s desire to find the truth. Critics were riveted by his rich portrait of the pre-Columbian Americas and compared him favorably to Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. Like a good reporter, Mann seeks out sources that challenge his own views; nonetheless, critics found some of Mann’s conclusions short on evidence. In some cases, they questioned whether his journalistic approach did justice to such a complex subject.

Cited by the Author

The Columbian Exchange Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 | Alfred Crosby (1972, repr. 2003): Columbus’s voyages wreaked far more than just social and political havoc on the Americas. Biological changes—pandemics of diseases including cholera and smallpox—affected both the Old World and the New as colonists and Native Americans transmitted organisms back and forth, altering the world’s history forever.