In This Review

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
480 pp, Knopf, 2005

The boom in new scholarship on the Western Hemisphere before Columbus is intelligently synthesized in 1491, the engrossing bestseller by the able science popularizer Mann. Sifting adroitly through the accumulating evidence and the academic disputes, Mann drives home these arguments: the Americas may well have birthed the world's first complex civilization (seizing that claim from Mesopotamia); in 1491 the Americas were densely populated by a dazzling panoply of diverse civilizations superior to 1491 Europe in many areas, including technology, statecraft, and epic poetry; and Indians throughout the Americas, far from living in a pristine, untouched ecology, found ways to manage and improve their environments (that "low-hanging fruit" grew in planted orchards). European viruses, more than guns or steel, explain the utter demise of glorious empires and up to 100 million natives. Mann softens his myth-bashing by underplaying the systematic cultural genocide of the Counter Reformation conquistadors. With its many enlightening comparisons to European achievements, 1491 should be required reading in all high school and university world history courses.