Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Instructor: Michael Gott

Mike is a veteran of the New Hampshire public school system and has worked in grades 1-12. His role has varied from primary instructor to special needs support.

In his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, author Charles C. Mann challenges many of the accepted preconceptions of the Americas. Mann argues that the Western Hemisphere contained peoples far more populous and developed than common knowledge dictates.

The Theory of Charles C. Mann

When most Americans think about North and South America before European arrival, they tend to think of scattered tribes of Native Americans. These people lived nomadic lives and were greatly limited by their rudimentary technology. Historian Charles C. Mann would like people to challenge these preconceptions and imagine a vastly more sophisticated group of people.

The Land as Testament

Mann argues that based on newly discovered and discovered evidence that from present day New England to South Carolina the land was covered with farms built by the Native Americans. These farms would be on cleared flat land. Nearby, a large wooden wall would be in place to protect densely populated encampments of Native Americans. Further South were enormous stone chiefdoms. The city of Tenochtitlan was larger than the Europeans' centers in London or France. Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztec Empire between the 1300s and 1500s and its ruins are still visible in Mexico City. Just outside of Tenochtitlan was Lake Texcoco, a huge artificially constructed set of islands demonstrating the technological prowess of the people of the region.

If you continued south and arrived in the Inca empire you would realize it was the largest nation-state in existence at the time. If you looked at the same swath of land from England, it would stretch from Stockholm to Egypt. A piece of land that large would also prove how dense the populations in America were prior to Columbus' arrival.

Disease, the First Explorer

The reason Mann postulates that European explorers were ignorant of how vastly populated the Americas were is disease. One of the most deadly diseases was smallpox. Smallpox is a virus that enters the lungs and within days causes pustules on the skin and can be fatal within 12 days. While it is an accepted fact among the majority of historians that European diseases wiped out a huge percentage of the indigenous peoples, Mann argues that these historians underestimated how large the population was initially. When explorers first entered these areas they described them as sparsely populated because disease had wiped them out. Newly discovered archaeology techniques now indicate that these areas, especially in South America, had much larger populations than previously believed.

The Overstatement of Technology

Mann presents developed arguments that while the European settlers and conquerors did have different technology than Native Americans, this does not mean that their technology was better or would make up for the vastly greater numbers of people they faced. Sicknesses did far more damage to their enemy than steel. The spread of disease already reduced the number of opponents a conquistador had. A conquistador was a conqueror from Spain who helped to overthrow indigenous peoples in present-day Latin America as well as the Caribbean. An example is Pizarro who battled the Inca Empire. Historical records also make note that the Incas quickly adapted to soldiers mounted on horseback. Charles C. Mann cataloged multiple accounts which also state that conquistadors would often drop their armor in favor of the Inca armor, which was better suited to battle in South America. When Pizarro arrived in South America the Incas were still reeling from a civil war. He was not fighting a unified people, but multiple factions.

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