1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Reviewed on , book by Charles C. Mann

1491 tries to establish a full picture of the Americas before Columbus. It does an admirable job. It argues that the “New World” isn’t that new, in fact, it was settled before Britain. It goes through all the new things we’ve learned about the Americas in the past decades (which is a lot), and takes us on a journey through the continents the moments before everything was to change forever. It describes the Mayas, the Incas, the Americans, and so on. It tells us about what happened around the conquest, with skeletons layering the beaches due to mass-killings with smallpox. How the Americans thought the Europeans had disgusting personal hygiene (the cloth handkerchief was called out), but due to a 1,000s years of living among animals, the Europeans were immune to diseases that caused absolute havoc in the Americas. It certainly paints the picture that there were 10s of millions of people, way higher than previous estimate of “small bands.” The New World was by no means untouched, with many animals having gone extinct and the population having caused large ecological change. The Aztecs and Incas were both operating civilization larger than anywhere else on the planet, but it’s almost impossible for us to reason about their size. Many of the arguments why will be familiar if you’ve read Gun, Germs, and Steel — this book especially focuses on the Germs. The guns, it argues, really weren’t that effective in the 15th and 16th century, other than the fear they induced (just like horses).

Overall, I feel that for the length of the book, it just wasn’t interesting enough and circled too much around the same points. When I got 70% or so into the Audiobook, I decided to kill it and move on to another book. I am unsure if it was the narration, writing, or my mood—but I’d just grown tired of it.