Book Review: 1491, Charles C. Mann

Why must I constantly seek out things that blow my mind?

Seriously, this book will blow your mind. Stay away from it if you’re comfortable in your current “understanding” of how the Americas were before Columbus came along. Go ahead and keep thinking that the Amazonian “basin” is completely pristine and natural (it isn’t…it’s as man-made as concrete in some ways). Live happily under your notions that “Native Americans” were perfect guardians of nature (they weren’t…they probably released more carbon into the atmosphere than Europe did before the Industrial Revolution). Keep thinking that London and Paris were some of the most populous cities on the planet (they weren’t even close).

I learned that you shouldn’t say you “discovered” something that has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. I learned that just because a society didn’t build massive monuments doesn’t mean it didn’t know how to create, though interestingly enough, there were monuments in the Americas larger that the Great Pyramids…but who is to say one is better than the other?

The most powerful thing I learned was that people who lived in the Americas tended to shape their landscape to suit their needs on a scale larger than that dreamed of by Europeans. Perhaps only Genghis Kahn and the Mongols came close when they turned forestland into plains and steeps for feeding their horses, but that’s about it (and NO, I’m not comparing the two societies, just this particular practice). How far ahead of Europeans were Americans in some ways? Plenty. Genetic mixing created maize. Controlled burning produced the forests of the East Coast and (possibly) the central plains. Mixing charcoal and broken ceramics with native soil in the Amazon created soil so fertile that it still cannot be reproduced today. Terraced hillsides created room for crops to grow in extremely inhospitable environments. The Inca created the world’s only three dimensional counting system that some say is also their writing system (which has yet to be discovered and makes them the only civilization without one, by the way).

As usual, we find out that things aren’t what we suspected they were. Assumptions are challenged. New models of thinking are created. Realizations occur. What more could you want from a book? It isn’t a fast read by any means, and the information inside takes some time to absorb, but if you give it a chance, I think you’ll come to appreciate the message it delivers.

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