Just finished reading Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Despite the title’s superficial resemblance to Menzies’s 1421 (a crackpot theory that the Chinese discovered America), Mann’s 1491 is a serious survey of new research on pre-Columbian Native Americans. The new, emerging consensus can be summarized as follows.

  1. There were more — a lot more — people living in the Americas prior to the Europeans’ arrival. Tens if not hundreds of millions of people.
  2. They were a great deal more sophisticated — in philosophy, politics, agriculture and science — than the old shibboleth of the “noble savage” gave them credit for. Much of the Amazon, for example, was not a wild place, but a vast orchard.
  3. Their societies were far more dynamic. Rather than existing in a time warp for millenia, civilizations rose, fell, and rose again. The Inca empire existed for a mere century before Pizarro’s arrival, for example. There was, in other words, history.

And then the Europeans showed up — and with them, smallpox — and everything went to hell. A series of epidemics nearly obliterated the population. Sweeping far ahead of European contact, the disease left a few paltry survivors unable to maintain their culture’s infrastructure. Civilization collapsed. Animal populations exploded on the leftovers of Native American agriculture. Forests swept over the landscape. The wilderness European settlers and explorers encountered was, in effect, a new development; the people they encountered were not savages but survivors.

1491 left me with a sense of just how much has been lost forever, and with a desire to read more about it. Not that I plan to learn Nauhatl and start a new career in Native American studies; I’m just irredeemably curious. Less-known, complex histories have always drawn my attention: it’s why I gravitated to modern French history, which is so complicated and messy but less studied, during my university career.

It also touches on some of the environmental history that I enjoyed so much in Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism. I believe these two books are the only works of history I’ve read since leaving my Ph.D. program in 1999; I haven’t been able to read much history for fun since then. But these books are wonderful.