Book Review of “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”

Today is Thanksgiving, and nothing would mark the occasion better than to check out 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a 2005 book by Charles C. Mann. The work serves as a challenge to the arguments presented to us by Euro-centric scholars. For starters, Mann presents the argument that the Native peoples came 20,000 years ago as opposed to 13,000 years ago from Asia and not just from the Bering land bridge but by small boats from the coast of Siberia.

Much Larger Population than Believed
Euro-chauvinists like Ayn Rand as well as the Founding Fathers believed the “Indian” population ought to have been conquered because they did not “utilize the land properly.”

The truth of the matter is the Indigenous peoples throughout the New World used a slash and burn method to bring nutrients to otherwise sterile soil. The ancient Olmec peoples utilized this method in the otherwise infertile soil in the jungles of the Mexican Gulf Coast. Likewise, the Amazonian peoples utilized charcoal and a fish fertilizer to enrich the soil of their rainforests. ThePraire tribes used annual fires to encourage the growth of berry bushes so as to sustain a large population of deer. In the Inca Empire they utilized stone terraces for farming, and among the Mexica, also known as the Aztecs, used Chinampas, a floating garden in the lake of Texcoco. The results of this dominion over nature was a population of 100 million people, which is 10 times the previous estimates.

European Technology Was Not a Factor in Victory
Mann also tackles the overemphasis of gunpowder and steel, a major argument from some scholars. He describes the Indigenous attitudes to the arquebus (the early European firearm) as “noise makers” as well as wildly inaccurate and incapable of firing in the rain, susceptible to misfire and incapable of firing as quickly as a bow and arrow. The colonist John Smith commented on the ability of the arrow to shoot farther and much more accurately than those of the early firearms.

Similarly, the use of Indigenous clothing proved to be much better suited to the New World than their European counterparts. The armor of the Mesoamerican peoples was quickly adopted by the Spanish Conquistadors who commented on its lightweight properties and the ability to stop an arrow. They quickly used it instead of their cumbersome steel breastplates. European colonists as well commented on the sturdiness and comfort of Indigenous moccasins compared to European boots which were prone to wear and tear, and also recognized the superior maneuverability and speed of a canoe compared to anything the Europeans had of similar size.

Aztec Philosophy was Comparable to Greek Philosophy
A shattering analysis by Mann was the philosophy of the Mexica, or Aztecs, which he argued was just as sophisticated as Ancient Greek Philosophy. Aztec Philosophy was, in his opinion, the most developed philosophy in the Americas and has produced more philosophical texts than even the Ancient Greeks.

Aztec Society placed the Tlamatini, in Nahuatl “man who knows something,” or philosopher in high esteem. The Aztec philosophers dealt with such concepts as dialectical monism, aesthetics and poetry. Aztec philosophy was largely fatalist—it was their viewpoint that the Earth was fragile and destined for destruction and it was necessary to “find balance” in one’s life.Conclusion
The book 1491 serves as a tool to challenge Euro-centric views propagated by many historians. It is to challenge the belief that the Indigenous peoples of America were “wild savages” and the ridiculous notion that the Conquistador and Colonist brought “civilization” as well as “discovered” this continent.

Categories: Books, Colonialism, History, Media & Culture, Mexico, United States History

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