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A New New World Volume 59 Number 1, January/February 2006
by Brenda Fowler

In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, his meticulous and entertaining synthesis of new research, Science correspondent Charles Mann debunks the myth that when Europeans arrived in the Americas in the fifteenth century, they encountered a vast primeval wilderness sparsely populated by nomadic hunters living in harmony with nature since time immemorial.

1491

Drawing on fascinating research from the last few decades, Mann argues that native societies were older, larger, and grander than taught in history class. In 1491, the Americas' population may have been greater than Europe's; estimates range from a conservative 20 million to as high as 120 million. At various times, urban centers in the Midwest, Mexico, and South America supported tens of thousands of inhabitants.

The people here had it pretty good, and they weren't looking for new immigrants or Jesus. So why were the Europeans able to take over so easily? Some demographic calculations suggest that as much as 95 percent of the population was wiped out by disease, often smallpox. The "High Counters"--demographers and archaeologists who support high population estimates--argue that the epidemics spread so quickly that many people died before they ever laid eyes on a white man. Mann cites an account by a member of Hernando de Soto's expeditionary force, which rampaged through the southeast in the 1530s. On the banks of the Mississippi River in what is now Arkansas, his men saw Indian towns ringed with walls and moats. A century later, the French found no trace of them. No one knows for sure what happened, but the implication is that everyone had been felled by disease.

Instead of delivering a general overview of Precolumbian life, Mann wisely focuses his account on a handful of cultures, including the Norte Chico of Peru, the Maya, and the tribes of New England. The impressive and useful bibliography suggests that he has worked through a vast amount of material (portions of 1491 appeared in Atlantic Monthly and other publications), including accounts by conquistadors and colonists, to tell what is, from beginning to end, a story of an "unprecedented calamity."

Brenda Fowler is the author of Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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