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Ancient South America Karen Olsen Bruhns Cambridge University Press

30th April 2011 History Books 27 Comments

“Karen Bruhns has written a stimulating and wide-ranging account of the origins and nature of ancient South American civilisation….an excellent introductory text to South America, and students, scholars and layreaders alike should all be grateful.” New Scientist

“The book she wrote is a triumph. It is so well crafted and informative that it should be owned by anyone and everyone interested in the native cultures of South America….Bruhns is an excellent writer with the power of someone fully engaged in her work, combining love, knowledge of, and commitment to her subject….an eminently informative and enjoyable book.” American Anthropologist

“A solid introductory book for generalists and for archaeologists trying to keep up with developments outside their areas of specialization.” Choice

Encompassing ten millennia of development from the first hunters to the magnificent empire of the Incas, this survey covers the immense variety of ancient South American cultures–highlighting the unique arts and industries and important contributions of these little known peoples.

South America is still the least known continent in the world. Ancient South America encompasses ten millennia of cultural development and diversity on this great continent. From the first hunters to the magnificent empire of the Incas it covers the immense variety of cultures, their unique arts and industries and the important contributions these little known peoples have made to the modern world. Accessibly written and abundantly illustrated, this book will be enjoyed by students of archaeology, anthropology and art history.

“Karen Bruhns has written a stimulating and wide-ranging account of the origins and nature of ancient South American civilisation….an excellent introductory text to South America, and students, scholars and layreaders alike should all be grateful.” New Scientist

“The book she wrote is a triumph. It is so well crafted and informative that it should be owned by anyone and everyone interested in the native cultures of South America….Bruhns is an excellent writer with the power of someone fully engaged in her work, combining love, knowledge of, and commitment to her subject….an eminently informative and enjoyable book.” American Anthropologist

“A solid introductory book for generalists and for archaeologists trying to keep up with developments outside their areas of specialization.” Choice

Ancient South America (Cambridge World Archaeology)

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491 is not so much the story of a year, as of what that year stands for: the long-debated (and often-dismissed) question of what human civilization in the Americas was like before the Europeans crashed the party. The history books most Americans were (and still are) raised on describe the continents before Columbus as a vast, underused territory, sparsely populated by primitives whose cultures would inevitably bow before the advanced technologies of the Europeans. For decades, though, among the archaeologists, anthropologists, paleolinguists, and others whose discoveries Charles C. Mann brings together in 1491, different stories have been emerging. Among the revelations: the first Americans may not have come over the Bering land bridge around 12,000 B.C. but by boat along the Pacific coast 10 or even 20 thousand years earlier; the Americas were a far more urban, more populated, and more technologically advanced region than generally assumed; and the Indians, rather than living in static harmony with nature, radically engineered the landscape across the continents, to the point that even “timeless” natural features like the Amazon rainforest can be seen as products of human intervention.

Mann is well aware that much of the history he relates is necessarily speculative, the product of pot-shard interpretation and precise scientific measurements that often end up being radically revised in later decades. But the most compelling of his eye-opening revisionist stories are among the best-founded: the stories of early American-European contact. To many of those who were there, the earliest encounters felt more like a meeting of equals than one of natural domination. And those who came later and found an emptied landscape that seemed ripe for the taking, Mann argues convincingly, encountered not the natural and unchanging state of the native American, but the evidence of a sudden calamity: the ravages of what was likely the greatest epidemic in human history, the smallpox and other diseases introduced inadvertently by Europeans to a population without immunity, which swept through the Americas faster than the explorers who brought it, and left behind for their discovery a land that held only a shadow of the thriving cultures that it had sustained for centuries before. –Tom Nissley

A 1491 Timeline

Europe and Asia

Dates The Americas

25000-35000 B.C. Time of paleo-Indian migration to Americas from Siberia, according to genetic evidence. Groups likely traveled across the Pacific in boats.

Wheat and barley grown from wild ancestors in Sumer.


5000 In what many scientists regard as humankind’s first and greatest feat of genetic engineering, Indians in southern Mexico systematically breed maize (corn) from dissimilar ancestor species.

First cities established in Sumer.


3000 The Americas’ first urban complex, in coastal Peru, of at least 30 closely packed cities, each centered around large pyramid-like structures

Great Pyramid at Giza


32 First clear evidence of Olmec use of zero–an invention, widely described as the most important mathematical discovery ever made, which did not occur in Eurasia until about 600 A.D., in India (zero was not introduced to Europe until the 1200s and not widely used until the 1700s)

800-840 A.D. Sudden collapse of most central Maya cities in the face of severe drought and lengthy war

Vikings briefly establish first European settlements in North America.

1000 Reconstruction of Cahokia, c. 1250 A.D.* Abrupt rise of Cahokia, near modern St. Louis, the largest city north of the Rio Grande. Population estimates vary from at least 15,000 to 100,000.

Black Death devastates Europe.


1398 Birth of Tlacalel, the brilliant Mexican strategist behind the Triple Alliance (also known as the Aztec empire), which within decades controls central Mexico, then the most densely settled place on Earth.

The Encounter: Columbus sails from Europe to the Caribbean.

1492 The Encounter: Columbus sails from Europe to the Caribbean.

Syphilis apparently brought to Europe by Columbus’s returning crew.


Ferdinand Magellan departs from Spain on around-the-world voyage.

1519 Sixteenth-century Mexica drawing of the effects of smallpox** Cortes driven from Tenochtitln, capital of the Triple Alliance, and then gains victory as smallpox, a European disease never before seen in the Americas, kills at least one of three in the empire.

1525-1533 The smallpox epidemic sweeps into Peru, killing as much as half the population of the Inka empire and opening the door to conquest by Spanish forces led by Pizarro.

1617 Huge areas of New England nearly depopulated by epidemic brought by shipwrecked French sailors.

English Pilgrims arrive at Patuxet, an Indian village emptied by disease, and survive on stored Indian food, renaming the village Plymouth.

1620 *Courtesy Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Collinsville, Ill., painting by Michael Hampshire. **Courtesy Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, N.M. (Bernardino de Sahagn, Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espaa, 1547-77). –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

  • 27 responses to "Ancient South America Karen Olsen Bruhns Cambridge University Press"

  • Analyzethis
    14:07 on April 30th, 2011
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    I was excited about this book for a while, yet, particularly after disappointment with 1421′s overblown claims, I was skeptical that its initial claims would be supported by hard evidence. Instead, I found that Mann has clearly done his homework to produce a brilliant book describing the lost chapters of American history.

    Mann’s (and the researchers he cites) basic argument is clear: conventional history on American Indians is stale, often relying on faulty, static, or even blatantly racist research. These societies weren’t waiting in stasis for Columbus – they rose and fell, much like European societies, a fact many researchers failed to realize. The introduction is illustrative, in which Mann describes an Indian society that is currently poor and nomadic, although it built large earth mounds and had a successful civilization before 1491.

    I also like the fact that Mann presents the conventional historical argument before he introduces the more modern argument. He also does a good job explaining why past researchers may have been mistaken. For example, many glossed over the accounts of early explorers, even though they may have actually been recording what they saw (surely not that surprising when you think about it, but a revolution in the field nonetheless).

    The only faults I found in the book were relatively small. First, it would have been nice to have a glossary. Second, while the book follows a well-developed structure, I wanted more. One gets the feeling that Mann only scratches the surface, and he could have easily written another 100 pages while keeping the reader entertained. On the other hand, this book already took so much work that this may be a lot to ask. I only hope Mann produces more books on this subject.

  • Seano
    19:03 on April 30th, 2011
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    This is an excellent, affordable reference for those looking for a general coverage of ancient cultures in South America. It is quite approachable for someone new to this area of study, and is very commendable for being quite comprehensive. However, those interested in antiquities or the cultural output of these cultures will be quite disappointed with the lack of illustrations and photographs. Pick this one up to learn the ropes, and move on to more specific, better-illustrated references for the cultures that interest you.

  • Jolynn Ordona
    23:29 on April 30th, 2011
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    This is a book dense with facts and theories. Since most of the facts and theories are new – within the last decade or two – most readers (such as I) will not have known of them. As the author points out, most high school textbooks are woefully behind on pre-Columbus Americas. To put it very briefly, there was much more in this hemisphere before Columbus’ arrival than was thought and taught.

    Although the author points to some of the European biases that have underestimated the Indians’ cultures before Europeans came here, the knowledge this book unearths makes a citizen of the western hemisphere puff out his chest: That’s right, “we” had an alphabet just as early as you and we had a zero long before Europe!

    The best part of the presentation of all this new knowledge and accompanying theories is that Mr. Mann never takes sides (occasionally you can get a glimmer of which side he thinks is correct) in the arguments. As he points out, some of the arguments get overly personal. His journalistic background is probably what makes this possible.

    Many people approach a history book such as this and assume that all it is is a rendition of things past. 1491 rises above this with a chapter on the rain forest and its past civilizations that has amazing relevance to today’s ecology and politics.

    It is always difficult to put the amount of information this book has in a coherent and orderly fashion. At times, it was difficult to keep up with the progression of dates and civilizations – comparing a city in Mexico, for instance with one Mr. Mann had described in Peru. That was the book’s only short-coming.

    There is a tremendous amount of information here that not only will be new to most readers, but it will make the reader shake his head at the amount of information we have not had until recently. This is certainly well worth the read and a valuable addition to any American history library.

  • TrafficWarden
    23:54 on April 30th, 2011
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    Charles Mann’s book – with the subtitle of “New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” – is not really about the year 1491. It’s really about everything, or almost everything, that created the world that Columbus and the other explorers, conquistadores, missionaries, and fortune-seekers encountered when Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere.

    The author has a mission: to let us non-experts in on the fact that many of the assumptions and theories dealing with the pre-Columbian Americas are being challenged, and in many cases overturned, in every relevant discipline. His sympathies are clearly with the overturners and, for the most part, he won over this reader’s sympathies as well.

    If the book were to be ordered chronologically (and it most certainly isn’t; see below), it would start with Mann’s review of the challenge to the long-held assumption that the first Americans all came by way of Beringia and traveled down the relatively short-lived ice-free corridor around 10,000 years ago. Other possible routes at other, perhaps earlier, possible times are now being suggested by some researchers. Mann spends more time putting forward the contemporary counter-arguments to the equally long-held belief that the early migration quickly resulted in an “overkill” of large mammals, leaving North America bereft of such species.

    What Mann does treat in detail early in the book is the argument over the size of the pre-Columbian population. In the 1930′s, a figure of 8.4 million was generally accepted. Today, some researchers believe that the number was closer to 100 million. As Mann says, that would mean that when Columbus set sail more people lived in the Americas than in Europe. That’ll make you sit up straight and pay attention.

    Mann takes up many other contentious issues and in doing so alerts us to many little-known facts (and factoids) about the pre-Columbian Indians and their cultures. His review of the history of maize – perhaps the earliest example of genetically engineered foods – is one of the most fascinating examples. His treatment of the rapid spread of smallpox is another. Only space constraints keep me from providing a much longer list of such examples.

    And in fact that story of maize is emblematic of what I took to be the main lesson of Mann’s book: pre-Columbian Indians were shapers of their environment in massive, comprehensive ways and in almost every watershed, mountain range, and plain of the hemisphere. Such was the magnitude of this environmental engineering, it seems, that the images of the pre-Columbian world that we grew up and that were promulgated by both textbooks and mass media were totally at variance with reality.

    I find two interconnected faults with the book, one major, one not so. The major one is the sense of randomness in the way Mann has organized his material. Themes come, go, and reappear. The short history of the Inca (Mann insists on “Inka”) is presented; then later we hear of the peoples who preceded and were conquered by them. The section on the population debate is followed by one entitled “Frequently Asked Questions”, a chapter that seems out of place and premature. Other examples abound. This is admittedly a book of themes rather than strict narrative, but Mann is too good at narrative to have not put more effort into organizing those narratives better within his major themes. I was left feeling totally confused about some aspects of the book and the peoples whose stories it tells.

    My minor objection, but one which contributes to the confusion, is Mann’s predilection for telling us a story with a straight-face and then admitting that it’s all wrong. He spends, for example, almost 6 pages recounting the history and conquest of the Inca, only to start the next section with “I have just pulled a fast one.” A fascinating discussion of “Why did the Inka lose” follows. It would have been even more fascinating without the nagging suspicion that we might still be being had. He duplicates this technique elsewhere in the book.

    But I haven’t stopped talking about the book and its many absorbing and challenging themes in the month since I finished it. It’s boldly provocative and makes you want to keep reading about how the history of the hemisphere is being rewritten.

    The maps are plentiful (16), clear, and informative. More obvious credit should be given to the map-maker. The photographs (36 of them) are also helpful.

  • John Baxter
    2:48 on May 1st, 2011
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    1491 is part science text, part history book. Charles C. Mann’s main premise is that the Americas in 1491 were a much different place than our history books say they were.

    Mann’s first line of attack is the “empty America” syndrome. He claims there were as many people living in North America as there were in Europe, prior to decimation by smallpox and other European diseases. In the process he also belittles the “pristine America” argument. Prior to the smallpox pandemic, Indians burned the underbrush of our forests; the result was more of a parkland than a wild Garden of Eden. The forest stretching from the coast to the Mississippi came afterward, when the Indian caretakers had been depleted.

    Most impressive for me was Mann’s analysis of Indian technology. For instance, maize was not an indigenous plant. It was genetically engineered from a mountain grass called teosinte. The Amazonian Indians of South America also managed to invent their own soil, “terra preta,” a sort of mixture of pottery shards and charcoal. The South American Indians even experimented in social engineering. Inca warriors would infiltrate villages, “convince” their rulers that accepting Inca rule would be beneficial to their people, then gradually take over. Once in control, they would move some of the subjugated population to others villages where they were required to learn the Inca language. The Incas even managed to “eradicate hunger” in an empire larger than that conquered by Alexander the Great.

    Mann hopscotches back and forth between such diverse cultures as Triple Alliance (Aztecs) in Central America to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in Canada and New England. Each has a surprise in store for the reader. For instance, it’s not true that the Aztecs never invented the wheel. Children’s toys have been unearthed with definite wheels. Mann theorizes that because of the mountainous and wet environment the Aztecs scorned the invention. Then he compares them to Europe, where our supposedly superior civilization never did invent the plow; it had to be imported from China.

    Another criticism of Native American culture is that they had no system of writing. Mann counters this misconception with the Inca’s “khipu,” sort of three-dimensional stringed knots, which were felt and read. Scientists are still trying to decipher them. Mixtec Indians also left behind “codices,” deerskin or bark books whose painted pages looked rather like murals.

    Native America civilizations also appear to be much older than the history books say. The Clovis culture, for instance, has been carbon-dated to between 13,500 and 12,900 years ago and archaeologist Alex D. Krieger lists fifty sites said to be older yet. Some scientists maintain that paleo-Indians “walked or paddled” to Peru fifteen thousand years ago.

  • Karla Shelton
    8:10 on May 1st, 2011
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    Mann does offer some good information and ideas, and I would certainly encourage everyone to read his book. You’ll be glad you did. But it’s not a 5-star book.
    It’s not history. It’s not even pop-history, but rather a collection of disorganized articles.
    The author, a writer for The Atlantic, is obviously intrigued by the subject and has compiled lots of information, interviewed experts, and offers solid facts mixed with good guesses, but after reading it you still won’t know very much about the Americas in 1491.
    That’s not the author’s fault, since the destruction was so ruthless, so complete, most of that knowledge probably has been lost forever. Just don’t buy the book expecting more than the title can deliver. The subtitle does clarify this, and promises not a comprehensive account, but only “new” revelations. Okay, some of these are 20 or more years old, but if you don’t know about them, then fair enough, they count as new.
    The style is that of James Fallows, the author’s boss, and I found it easy to read. On the other hand, two of my friends (and some reviewers) found it difficult to get through because of the disorganization.
    The index is worthless. This isn’t the author’s fault either, but it shows the publisher never meant for the book to be taken as a legitimate history. Many Chinchorro mummies, we learn, show they lived on seafood, and paleoparasitologists have found eggs in the cadavers from Diphyllobothrium pacificum, a tape worm that comes from eating raw seafood. (No more sushi.) The worm leeches Vitamin B-12 out of the system and can cause fatal anemia. See how long it takes you to find that passage using the index. Most of the key words aren’t listed. (It’s on pp. 180-181, in my copy.) I could give lots more examples.

  • Satish KC
    12:51 on May 1st, 2011
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    This is a highly readable and informative compendium of current knowledge on the Americas prior to Columbian contact. Charles Mann has gathered modern research into an engaging narrative that offers updates on old theories, bold new theories that often contradict the old ones, and a fair amount of useful speculation on what was really happening in the ancient Americas. The speculative parts of this book will turn off serious historians (plus those with political, academic, or ethnic agendas, as can be seen in some of the more condescending reviews here), but the speculation offers plenty of food for thought, and Mann has mostly just channeled the exploratory ideas of his sources. In any case, such explorations are grounded in at least partially corroborated findings by modern archeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and experts in other fields, and Mann has made extensive use of legitimate sources both old and new. In fact, his bibliography will provide the enthusiast with reading material for years to come.

    In addition to increasing the reader’s knowledge of little-covered Native American societies such as the Cahokians and several pre-Inka South American kingdoms, the main running contention in this book is not necessarily historical but ecological. There is growing evidence that Indians throughout the hemisphere did not live in a timeless and static communion with nature, which is a common “green” stereotype. Instead, the majority of native populations actively engineered their landscapes and altered their local ecologies to better suit human needs, though this usually (but not always) resulted in long-term mutual benefits for nature and man, rather than the dead-end destruction resulting from Western methods. And in general, large and structured city states seem to have been remarkably common, even in the previously little-appreciated Amazon basin (which itself is not as “pristine” or “untrammeled” as modern hype would have you believe). And finally, Mann presents the latest evidence showing that Native American populations were once several orders of magnitude higher than those found by European explorers and colonists, with horrendous percentages being wiped out by Western diseases just a few years before. While this book is not a groundbreaking research effort in its own right, Mann has compiled a great amount of knowledge that will go a long way toward shaping your views of how civilized the “old” world really was. [~doomsdayer520~]

  • webdiva
    22:22 on May 1st, 2011
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    Charles C. Mann’s book manages to convey an impressive breadth of theories and ideas in a fairly short volume- the book itself is only 336 pages, it’s the notes and appendices that take it well over 400 pages. In those pages, however, Mann packs in so many new (to me, at least) ideas and interpretations of American history that are awe-inspiring at best, and food for thought, at least.

    In his book, Mann presents the argument that the Americas were highly populated by Indians before Europeans came (they were then subsequently killed off in alarming amounts by disease). Far from being the tree-huggers they’re made out to be, Indians had a drastic and important effect on the environment around them. He presents evidence of complex agricultural techniques, from forest fires to “genetic engineering” of crops and even, amazingly, proof of lengthy and highly successful farming techniques in the Amazon rain forest. He paints a vivid picture of Inka and Mayan societies, and then delivers evidence that those were not the first advanced civilizations in the Americas, but that they were the culmination of thousands of years of growth and learning.

    He states that the environment before Europeans arrived was systematically influenced by the natives, and that when they were killed off by disease, it created a whole =new= environment that, by the time colonists came (1600s onwards), they saw a drastically different country than had existed only a short time before. He cites the well-known story of the passenger pigeon as an example, giving it a twist, and then even hints at a precursor to democracy and the American Constitution in the Haudenosaunee culture.

    The most potent point, in my opinion, that Mann delivers is given early in the story. He says, “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 … 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!” And then Mann uses the rest of the book to make a case for just how MUCH was lost when the Indians died out- their agricultural skills, their knowledge, their ideas and their cultures. It’s a compelling account, well-presented, and, in my view, thoroughly successful.

  • Ripel
    0:15 on May 2nd, 2011
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    “1491″ is destined to become a much-debated history of pre-Columbian America. Already being called “revisionist” by some and “revolutionary” by others, it certainly is not “your father’s history of Native Americans” (who were called “Indians” by your father’s generation, anyway).

    Those who complain of scant primary support don’t understand historiography of pre-historic history. By it’s very nature and name, the historian of such societies much rely on more ancillary research and documentation. Mann does so by culling the results from diverse fields such as archaeology, anthropology, sociology, and paleolinguistics.

    His most fascinating and likely most provable hypothesis results from first-hand accounts from the first Europeans of their first encounters–encounters with people they considered their equals. From this information and copious additional research, Mann hypothesizes that the “American” continents were richly populated with culturally enriched societies that were killed off by diseases before later Europeans could document their existence.

    Reviewer: Robert W. Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of “Soul Physicians” and “Spiritual Friends,” and of the forthcoming “Beyond the Suffering: The Story of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.”

  • TrafficWarden
    0:39 on May 2nd, 2011
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    If you thought, as I did, that the Americas prior to Columbus were a couple of barren continents occupied by a sparce population of savages, you are in for a mindblowing surprise in this wonderful new book. There may have been 100 million people living in the Americas in 1491, perhaps more than in Europe. There were bigger cities, some with running water and botanical gardens, larger than any in Europe. Did you know the Inkas invented the salad bar? Okay, that’s a joke, but the other stuff is true and a zillion other amazing things. Other books and articles on preColumbian America have disappointed me with their fantasy: Chinese in Rhode Island, King Arthur in Kentucky, aliens in Peru, etc. But this is solidly researched by an award-winning science writer, with endorsements from some heavyweight historians–Richard Rhodes, Tom Powers, Joseph Ellis, and others. There are clear and helpful maps, copious and readable footnotes, and a H-U-G-E bibliography for those of us who teach or just want to know more. On a personal note, Mann explains why he uses the term “Indian” rather than “native American” or more politically correct terms. The Chippewas (aka Ojibwa) in my family always called themselves Indians, so this makes me realize Mann really immersed himself in the subject. This is an important, fascinating, readable, and handsome book

  • John Baxter
    3:34 on May 2nd, 2011
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    A more appropriate subtitle for this iconoclastic book might be: “Everything you thought you knew about Pre-Columbian America is (probably) wrong.”

    Charles Mann is not himself an archeologist, anthropologist or geographer; he is a science writer with impressive credentials. He obviously is also an industrious fellow who has traveled widely, interviewed everyone he could find who seemed to matter, and burrowed conscientiously through a mountain of technical literature.

    His intent in this book is to demolish the idea that America before Columbus was a howling wilderness thinly populated by inconsequential native people who can safely be ignored by historians. The general consensus among scholars today is that America had hosted a good number of highly advanced civilizations long before Columbus appeared and that its population when he did show up was equal to or greater than that of the Europe from whence he had sailed. One estimate put it in the “tens of millions.”

    The scope of this book’s vision is wide, ranging from the coast of Massachusetts to the heights of the Andes and the Amazon rain forest. This gives it a rich underpinning of history, legend and scholarship; it also gives it a loose and blurry focus as Mann’s argument moves abruptly from upland Peru to Massachusetts and from the Mississippi flood plain opposite Saint Louis to ancient Mexico.

    The reader learns quite quickly that very little about this vast subject can be pinned down with certainty. Every theory that has been advanced seems to have generated a counter-theory — and Mann shows that scientific types are as capable as ward-heeler politicians of nasty public invective and personal attacks on each other. He seems almost to take delight in detailing their catfights and hair-pulling matches.

    Another lesson the lay reader takes from this book is the vast sweep of geological time. Mann writes of the rise and fall of empires over a span of perhaps 20 millennia. If two experts come within a century or so of dating a certain event or shard of pottery, the assumption is that they agree with each other. Population movements and geological events that took place over 200 or 300 years are called “abrupt.” It makes the modern reader suddenly aware of how small we bulk on the cosmic scale of time.

    Even with these cautions, Mann’s book is full of fascinating tales of places like the great Inca city of Tenochtitlan — in its heyday, it was larger than Paris — and Tawantinsuyu on the shore of Lake Titicaca in the high Andes, a marvel of architecture and economic prosperity. Closer to home he writes enthrallingly about the Plymouth Colony and about the great settlement at what is now Cahokia, Illinois, just across the Mississippi from modern-day Saint Louis. Cahokia, once the largest settlement north of the Rio Grande and a center of trade and government, is today a tiny place of interest only to archeologists.

    Mann ranges across agriculture, government, warfare, economics and population movement in his broad-gauge survey of two continents and the historically rich Central American isthmus that connects them. Variations in religious beliefs and practices loom especially large.

    His prose is lively enough, but it can get highly technical, and he does have a tendency to get bogged down in the minutiae of some of his subjects. His discussions of agriculture, for example, will daunt readers who are not comfortable with terms like “mitochondrial haplogroups.” Elsewhere one must deal with terms like glyptodonts, caliche and zoonotic.

    At the very end of his book Mann confronts the clash between environmentalists and developers, a theme that has lurked in the background of much of his text. He sees this endless controversy as a clash between two conflicting philosophical principles: nomos (rationality, artifice) and physis (irrationality, nature). He comes down tentatively and without much conviction somewhere in the middle. We have to accept the need to bring order to nature, but at the same time we must respect the rights and historical accomplishments of native peoples, who were anything but the ignorant savages we heard about in school. Our learned tour guide seems unwilling to choose sides.

    This is disappointing — but we cannot deny that we have learned a lot from him in the course of this long and difficult journey through time.

    — Reviewed by Robert Finn

  • Karla Shelton
    8:56 on May 2nd, 2011
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    This is a fascinating book about an amazing subject of such breadth and diversity to startle the imagination. The subject is the Americas in the period before Columbus and the ravages of western diseases. The claims are deeply speculative and some will say revisionist. They are basically trying to get at three perplexing questions. 1) What was the population of the Americas before Columbus and what was its economic development? 2) When did Americans first arrive and from where and by what? 3) What happened to this civilization.

    We are told by new scholarship that perhaps Americans immigrated from Siberia or across the pacific not 11,000 years ago but 20,000 years ago. We are also now finding that population densities were much higher then previously thought, not only among the Aztecs and Incas but in the Mississippi valley and elsewhere. At the same time we learn that technology of the Native Americans was higher and more progressed then previously thought. Lastly we are told the claim that diseases whipped out between 90-98% of the people living in America at this time.

    These are radical new claims, especially the claims regarding Native American tampering with the environment. These are interesting claims and perhaps some of them are true. There are however several reservations. Evidence for the arrival of Americans 20,000 years ago is scant and based on only a few sites where carbon dating may have been wrongly applied. Secondly, the population densities of the Americas have been widely claimed as larger, especially in Diamonds well received book `Guns, Germs and Steel’. The idea that diseases brought by Europeans lead to one of the worst epidemics in world history, ten times worse then the great plague, is also rehashed from previous studies. The wonderful thing about this book is it presents the new ideas in a clear and convincing format, easily digestible and a fascinating read.

    Seth J. Frantzman

  • Dagmar Naguin
    19:15 on May 2nd, 2011
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    Mann gives the reader a comprehensive overview of the new theories concerning native American societies before the colonial period. The story is intriguing, and the fascinating narrative will hold the reader’s complete attention. The assertions made are too numerous and complex to go into in any detail here, but in brief: we are told that the Western Hemisphere was actually much more populous than anyone had imagined previously. Most of the inhabitants were wiped out by plagues brought by the Europeans. Far from being either brutal and child-like, or “noble savages”, the native Americans had established sophisticated societies which served large and growing populations, and which had great impact on their natural environments. No small Indian tribes living in a vast, untamed wilderness! To the contrary, fire was used repeatedly to burn off weeds and undergrowth, extensive mounds and other structures were raised to provide crop land and ponds for fish breeding, and cultivation was widespread. Indeed, Mann asserts that the Amazon, far from being the quintessential wilderness most regard it as, is actually a garden gone wild!
    The tale is breathtaking in its scope. But is it true? The author of 1491 acknowledges that the new theories are controversial. For example: everyone agrees the Europeans brought diseases which wiped out large numbers of Indians. But not all agree that the original population was anywhere near the levels claimed. And many researchers contend that structures claimed to be of human origin, such as the Beni causeways in Bolivia, are actually of natural origin. This reader withholds judgement until a lot more evidence is forthcoming. However, everyone interested in history owes it to themselves to read this spellbinding story of an America that just might have been, and then watch as it is either confirmed or refuted by continuing, widely based research.

  • PaulTheZombie
    20:24 on May 2nd, 2011
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    This book was very interesting. I learned a lot about the early Americas, and I am glad that I read it. I thought the author explored a wide range of present thought on pre-Columbus Americas, and fairly presented differing points of view.

    However, I would not call it “highly readable” or “a good read” as other reviewers have. Frankly, having read some of these reviews before reading the book, I found the book a surprise. It was a difficult read. I read hundreds of books per year, but this one was a struggle. The author continuously jumped between subjects and time periods, and I found it difficult to follow his point in many places. It was a real struggle to finish this book. I kept putting it down and reading other books, before forcing myself to go back to this one, since I really did find the subject matter interesting.

    So, although the book did contain interesting information, it would have been much better with decent editing.

  • Jolynn Ordona
    0:50 on May 3rd, 2011
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    Charles Mann has done a great service to all peoples of the Americas with this fine book.

    He culls the reasearch of countless archeaologists, anthropologists and other scientists from the past two decades to reveal a history that has been waiting too long for a voice.

    The text is very reader friendly and allows even the most scientifically uninitiated to understand complex ideas. In addition to making dense scholarly material accessible to the average reader he does so in a well rounded way that makes note of criticisms of varying theories, allowing for the those interested in reading dissenting views to know where to look.

    An absolutely fantastic read. A revelation. A must-read for all interested in their American history and the battles and conflicts that shaped a hemisphere.

  • TrafficWarden
    1:14 on May 3rd, 2011
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    We were told about the Vikings and the Indians in elementary school history classes, but for all intents and purposes, the perception was that life didn’t begin in the New World before Columbus arrived. Science writer Charles C. Mann challenges this widely held notion with his fascinating if a bit scattershot chronicle of what life was like in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus’s arrival. Mann’s purpose with this book is to deconstruct the belief that pre-Columbus America was a howling wilderness thinly populated by small congregations of savages in pure survival mode. On the contrary, what he finds through his research is an America hosted by a good number of highly advanced civilizations. In fact, so successful were these mini-societies that the population of what is now North and South America was equal to or greater than that of the Europe in Columbus’s time.

    Mann discloses that many scholars now insist that native settlement began at least 20,000 years ago, when fishing peoples arrived in small, open boats from coastal Siberia. Their descendants developed especially productive modes of horticulture which sustained a population explosion. He meticulously lists the mathematical and scientific accomplishments of peoples such as the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs, and shows how the Indian tribes of North America were populous and had already removed much of the wilderness to suit their own needs. It is his gathered conclusion that by 1492, Indians in the two American continents numbered about 100 million, or roughly ten times previous estimates. The book is fertile with such revelations, and the resulting tome provides a wide-ranging scope in terms of the different civilizations he uncovers. They range from the Illinois plain and the Massachusetts coast to the Andes and the Amazon rainforest.

    There is a rich mixture of history, legend and scholarship in Mann’s writing but not a real attempt to explain more cohesively how these civilizations thrived. As we discover, the natives sometimes overcrowded the land and strained local supplies of water, wood and game animals. More often, however, they managed their local nature ably, sustaining large populations for centuries. The author documents a multitude of scientific theories, and he questions their accuracy with acuity but with a surprising lack of focus. Yet, even with these cautions, the book is chockfull of interesting tales of places like the great Inca city of Tenochtitlan. At its height, it was more populous than present-day Paris. He also describes Tawantinsuyu on Lake Titicaca, a marvel of architecture and economic prosperity none of which remains today. The most intriguing story is the city that used to exist across the Mississippi from modern-day St. Louis, apparently the largest settlement north of the Rio Grande.

    As a turning point, 1492 has always been presented as the introduction of sustainable civilization to the New World, but Mann pierces this myth by painting a vivid picture of colonizers swarming over the land and determined to subjugate the natives. With their weaponry of gunpowder and steel, the Europeans also introduced voracious livestock which invaded and consumed native crops. The biggest eye-opener is the fact that the foreign-bred cows, chickens and pigs carried diseases previously unknown to the natives. In fact, the greatest demographic catastrophe in global history occurred when lacking immunity, the Indians died by the millions, reducing their numbers to a tenth of their previous population by 1800.

    Mann’s prose is lively enough, but sometimes he gets highly technical with a lack of dexterity to translate his findings. His tendency to get bogged down in the minutiae leads to some confusing debates between older and newer scholars. I was hoping for a greater sense of viewpoint among the various theories since some strike me as far weaker than others. For example, he concludes rather simplistically that Indian precedents link directly to American democracy, which supposedly caused the dissolution of European hierarchies of command and control. The lack of perspective probably has to do with the author’s journalistic background, which puts more focus on fact presentation than on an organized narrative. Without greater structure and perhaps due to the lack of an anthropologist’s instincts, the book tends to bounce between centuries and across vast continents in a repetitive and at times, contradictory fashion.

    Regardless, Mann’s book is a triumph of fresh material on a timeworn subject in allowing us to re-examine how we teach the ancient history of the Americas and how we live with the environmental consequences of colonization. In the final chapters, the author confronts the clash between environmentalists and developers and the inevitable ramifications. This is a fascinating read for even non-anthropologists.

  • The Dealer
    8:21 on May 3rd, 2011
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    This is it. A tour de force, referencing all of the specialized works which the media and other writers have brought to the attention of us non-specialists, and introducing much significant work that hadn’t previously been widely reviewed.

    Every author has his quirks. Mann sees anthropologists especially, but also the archaeologists, linguists and other specialists with whom they interact, as being constantly engaged in pitched battles defending their various pet theories, to such an extent that they abandon civil behavior towards one another. It’s a bit of a bad rap. The anthropologists I’ve know, from Theodora Kroeber on down, have generally been a more agreeable lot.

    Another quirk, not terribly surprising given his topic, is to inflate the significance of the accomplishments of American civilizations beyond even what his surprising findings might support. Yes, they did have fantastic architecture, well-developed and ecologically sensible architecture, elaborate social structures, writing, advanced arithmetic and vast cities and monuments. Even given all that, to suggest that they were on a par with or ahead of contemporaneous European or Chinese civilization seems to be a bit of a stretch.

    Mann is very good on the subject of agriculture: the domestication of food crops. The story of maize/corn is especially interesting. It has been cultivated so long that it is the only grain the wild ancestors of which remain a mystery. His description of today’s Amazon, Peru and Mexico are so accurate as to give great credence to his accounts of how they got the way they are.

    His account of how and when the Americas were populated is likewise very thorough and balanced, giving thorough descriptions of the various schools of thought and well drawn support for his preference of one theory over another. His bottom line is that the continent was peopled well before the previous estimate of 12,000 years ago. He offers support for several novel ideas. The settlers may have traveled south by boat. The original Peruvian agriculture may have been to grow cotton for fishnets rather than food. Peruvian civilization started on the coast rather than in the Andes.

    A question Mann chooses not to address is why these descendents of such grand civilizations have fared so poorly in modern times. Even granted their near extinction from European diseases, and their second-class status under the Spanish (the Portuguese, French and British are benignly overlooked), why is it that the native peoples of Bolivia have not adapted well to Western culture, and why does resentment run so high that the nativist politics of Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez, Ollanta Humala and others succeed as they do? Mann remarks several times on the minimal importance of marketplaces among the American civilizations. There was extensive trade, but it seems to have been on a tribe-to-tribe basis rather than person-to-person. Individual needs were satisfied by allocations from community stores. This highly communitarian description ties very well to what one observes in native American ruins and among contemporary native Americans. Is there something in the Indian history and temperament that handicaps their progress in societies that are now patterned according to the European model?

    In summary, this book does a wonderful job of filling the huge void in most of our knowledge of the native peoples of the Americas. One can hope that its success inspires imitation; it is a huge topic, with much left to be written.

  • eliteuser
    14:22 on May 3rd, 2011
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    Although recent years have yielded significant progress in understanding how “Indians” lived throughout the Americas before 1492 and Columbus, only isolated bits of the story have reached the popular press. Far too many people still hold to one of two myths of the Indians, or have little conception at all of pre-Columbian America.

    The first popular myth is that the Indians were a bunch of primitive savages just keeping the land warm until superior Europeans showed up. It’s sad to read reviews here that assert that because Indians used stone tools they were therefore “stone age”, with the implication that their culture was no further advanced than that early period.

    The second myth makes the Indians into proto-flower-children, naively and simply in tune with their environment.

    Both myths are based on stereotyping and are condescending to the pre-Colombians. How could people spread over two continents and many millennia be briefly summarized? They can’t be! The Americas saw the development of a broad range of cultures, just like every other inhabited area of the world. Some cultures overstressed their environment and soon collapsed. Others created stable conditions under which they could survive for generations. (Which is not the same as saying they didn’t impact nature.) But even the latter could be brought down by climate change, political instability, disease (especially European), or contact with outsiders (Indian or European).

    Great cities arose in mesoamerica and the Andes, and also in other areas when the right conditions prevailed. And sophisticated cultures existed even where city building wasn’t favored.

    This book takes the reader through a vibrant overview of centuries of Indian culture both before and shortly after Columbus landed. Much of the narrative is based on work-in-progress by archaeologists and historians, and will certainly become dated with time, but it is an important update to the common, current understanding of the subject.

    For those not enthralled by one of the myths I mention above, most Americans recall our history along the lines of Scene 1: The Pilgrims land and encounter Indians who teach them how to grow corn; they then have a big Thanksgiving party together. Scene 2: Americans moving inland encounter savage Indians who need to be exterminated or moved to reservations to make the continent safe for manifest destiny. Scene 3: The few remaining Indians are victims of brutal European suppression, and we need to buy jewelry and pottery from them to make ourselves feel better about the situation.

    This book is a welcome update to our thinking about the Americas before Columbus. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read in long time, and I highly recommend it.

  • cjinsd
    20:57 on May 3rd, 2011
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    This is one of the most captivating books you will read this year. It will take all of those “truths” you studied so diligently in school and make you question, question, question. Were the Americas (before Columbus) really the unblemished Garden of Eden setting that we have been told, or as Mann purports, were the Native’s altering the terrain long before the arrival of Europeans on the scene?

    The fact that the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtilan had more inhabitants than Paris and boasted running water and an enclosed sewer system would seem to lend credence to Mann’s claims of the native locals shaping their environment and managing their food supplies to satisfy their comfort and convenience levels for many, many years before the appearance of Columbus or Cortez.

    Mann’s subject matter and writing style as well as his vision, as he attempts to show both sides of this discussion, should assure this “scientific” tome a place of honor on the best seller list. It certainly provides the reader with a lot of food for thought and is definitely a lot more convincing and enthralling than much of the current material residing on the list of best sellers provided by our local newspapers.

  • Now what?
    5:23 on May 4th, 2011
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    Let’s start with the book’s subtitle: “New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.” The author reports on three major (and controversial) ideas in pre-Columbian studies, namely, that pre-Columbian populations in the Americas were (1) much older, (2) much larger, and (3) had a much bigger impact on the environment than people used to believe. These ideas, though, are hardly “new revelations;” they date back to the 1980′s or even earlier. Readers who are already familiar with them, whether pro or con, and who are looking for a synthesis of current work in this field, may come away disappointed.

    On the other hand, for the general reader, the book isn’t as readable as one might hope. Like most science journalism, the book includes three kinds of writing: an explanation of the concepts involved, the author’s personal anecdotes (travels and interviews with scientists), and a history of how the concepts developed over time. In the present book, this is all mixed together so indiscriminately that the reader has to change focus, rapidly and often, among the personal, the historical, and the conceptual. This is especially true of the first two thirds of the book, where this reader, at least, found himself losing patience as well as the thread of the argument. The third section, dealing with ecological impacts of the native peoples, seemed to employ a better style and a smoother flow of ideas.

    The book does not mention the US Southwest or Pacific Northwest, nor does it present a connected account of the history or culture of the regions it does mention. In spite of its title, it spends a lot of time on the colonizing years _after_ 1491.

    Some good things about the book are the author’s competence and understanding of his subject, extensive end-notes and a useful bibliography. Given that it has achieved near-best-seller status (at least, it is a best-seller for a science journalism book), it may be that I am wrong in some of the objections I’ve cited, or it may be that it is one of those books destined to be purchased by many though read by few. About that, only the individual reader can decide.

  • Ripel
    7:16 on May 4th, 2011
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    “1491″ comes out at a time when I’ve just finished reading Zinn’s “A People’s History” so I was immediately intrigued. As other reviewers have stated, this is not the history that we all learned back in Mr. Lombardi’s fifth grade class. Though it’s largely speculative (as is all prehistory) Mann fills in a fascinating story of an advanced and varied culture. Using as much data as he can and filling in where needed he creates an interesting timeline and history that has apparently struck some controversial cord with other historians. I like the book because I think it gives a clear picture of the continents’ first settlers without stereotyping (a failure of Zinn’s I think). I was also interested to learn how advanced the Indian’s cities and cultures were. I thought that Mann was too hard on the Europeans at times, painting them all with one brush. Really a good book, though, if it can be read with a little bit of a skeptical eye.

  • TrafficWarden
    7:41 on May 4th, 2011
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    Charles C. Mann has taken much of what we thought we knew about the Native Americans and their world and thrown it out the window. In a pleasantly informal yet highly professional style, Mann recounts tales of his own studies and travels, as well as those of many archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists past and present throughout the Americas.

    If your knowledge of the Native Americans begins and ends with what you learned in school years ago, or with the stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood, you are in for quite a shock. To begin with, the Native Americans have been “natives” here for far longer than any one suspected. Next, their cultures were heterogeneous and quite advanced, in many ways far outdoing their counterparts in Europe. And in what may be the most controversial sections, Mann maintains that the Native Americans were neither primitive savages who left no mark on their world, nor dreamy proto-environmentalists who lived as one with nature, but rather people who throughly altered and shaped their landscapes.

    This is not a book which will please many with an agenda on either the pro-development or pro-environment side, but it will be found invaluable by those who seek a better understanding of the “New World” before the Europeans “discovered” it.

  • Jim Levitt
    13:26 on May 4th, 2011
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    “1491″ is anchored by that penultimate year, the last one before the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, but of course, not limited to it. Mann explores the archaeology, anthropology (and probably several other ologies) of the Americas in the time before Columbus and a century or so thereafter. His intent is to debunk many of the popularly held views of life in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans–primarily the view of “Native Americans” as noble, but backward savages living in harmony with nature. According to Mann, and the many researchers that he cites, the Americas, both North and South, included many well-developed urban societies, most of whom knew well how to exploit nature to their own benefit–including the earliest genetic engineering that took place in the development of maize.

    The non-chronological approach to the vast scope of material (I also had trouble discerning an alternate structure to the book), and the lack of pictorial guides to help the reader envision and sort out all the information presented (I found myself wishing that Michener’s editor had presided over the book–then I would have surely had at least a timeline, and perhaps much more to help me) are my main quibbles with “1491″. Still it was an engaging read and a fine “blind” choice of reading material from an airport bookshop.

  • nedendir
    14:52 on May 4th, 2011
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    (…)which cited its description of the development of maize as one of the great feats of genetic manipulation. Mann’s main purpose in writing 1491 is the advancement of two theories: (a) that the Americas were far more thickly populated than popularly supposed and (b) that the Indian cultures were fairly sophisticated. After reading the book, I am not convinced that either theory is true, simply because I don’t think Mann has provided sufficient evidence to make his case.

    Mann relies on too many anecdotal accounts and has a habit of subtly shifting his argument from the facts (as much as they are known) to speculation. I think the emphasis on a select few scientists and the personal dimensions of their disputes is distracting. I enjoyed his writing at first but soon began to tire of it – his metaphorical style struck me as quirky and apt early in the book, but became annoying.

    I thought the book was not well organized. He jumps from region to region, culture to culture and time period to time period. I found it difficult to make an overall assessment of his argument and that left me unpersuaded.

    This book did not convince me that the Indians were quite as advanced as Mann thinks they were, but it did open my eyes to a world of which I was had previously been ignorant. I would like to read more about the Indian cultures, particularly of North America.

  • Analyzethis
    2:20 on May 5th, 2011
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    “1491″ is a journalist’s look at pre-Columbian America. It is an overly ambitious, oftentimes confusing assortment of fact, theory, archaeology, geography, genetics, anthropology, ethnography and almost every other science and pseudoscience that can be applied to the study of ancient and recent native Americans.

    In my opinion, the author would have been far better off to have thoroughly expored a couple of themes rather than to have hop-scotched over the Americas both temporally and geographically. Even the title–1491–is misleading because the author spends much time discussing European contacts with the natives. He also wastes time highlighting the personal disputes between various scholars.

    I would have much preferred an in-depth discussion of 1491 populations in various parts of the continents with evidence of the impact of European diseases. To be sure, the author discusses this subject but, bored or running out of material, he quickly skips to other, only tangentially related matters.

    This is really too bad because the author has gone to a great deal of work and study to prepare his work.

    Ron Braithwaite author of novels–”Skull Rack” and “Hummingbird God”–on the Spanish Conquest of America

  • PaulTheZombie
    3:29 on May 5th, 2011
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    Though it has its flaws (see below), this is an impressive review of new scholarship on what indigenous civilizations looked like in the Americas before Columbus. Mann took a reporter’s approach, interviewing scholars who are rethinking the conventional wisdom (as opposed to reading all their publications). This approach makes the book eminently approachable for the general reader but means that he necessarily elides the messy side of scholarship – - the debates, the falsifications, the qualifications.

    The result is interesting and important for the interested reader, and I hope every American history teacher reads it. At the same time, I think you have to read it critically as well as with an open mind.

    Most important, Mann’s presentation is intentionally biased. Let’s say there is a serious academic debate on some issue, as there usually is. Position A is less flattering to Indians than Position B, and there are good arguments on both sides. Mann will always side with Position B. Rhetorically, he will present Position A as outdated, and associate it with unsympathetic and occasionally racist figures from the history of scholarship.

    In some respects, that’s a decent model. Historiography often moves from orthodoxy to revisionism. But Mann’s bias leaves out two other common features of change in historiography. First, it often moves from orthodoxy to revision – - and then reaches a new synthesis drawing from both positions. Mann’s single-minded support of revisionism neglects the weaknesses of revisionism and the strengths of orthodoxy. Second, some revisionist ideas don’t pan out and never contribute to a new orthodoxy. That will likely be the fate of some of the ideas that Mann presents favorably. A more critical view of revisionism would serve Mann well.

    That’s a problem if you take Mann as presenting a new orthodoxy, and I hope that you history teachers won’t do that. But, again, I hope that you read it and share it with your students.

  • pop frame
    6:20 on May 5th, 2011
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    Mann’s excellent book does not deliver “new” revelations so much as an accomplished and respected historian’s summation of the salient points known to date about the history of the Americas. Certainly much of the material is new to many readers, and in Mann’s competent prose, the information is presented in an understandable and compelling style. Significantly, Mann balances his sound and rigorous research with suppositions based on his own remarkable insights. It is a clever and interesting read for the lay historian–as well as an important book for researchers into early American history.

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