According to Charles Mann's book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, were Indians able to develop sophisticated civilizations?
That indigenous American peoples had developed sophisticated civilizations centuries before Columbus's arrival is the thesis of Mann's book. Drawing on more than fifty years of archaeological and historical scholarship, Mann describes a "new picture of the Americas and their original inhabitants" (17). He shows that many Native peoples lived in densely populated areas like those found among the Maya or the Olmecs, or the people who inhabited the massive city of Cahokia, on the location of modern St. Louis. They developed sophisticated technologies and made remarkable intellectual achievements independent of Eurasian or African societies. Mann introduces the reader to an academic consensus that the Western Hemisphere was very different than many might imagine:
It was...a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere (29-30).
In short, the peoples of the Western Hemisphere had a history before 1492. Mann's account is intended to expose a wider readership to the work of professional historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists. In so doing, he hopes to destroy two myths. One was that Native peoples were "savages," people incapable of civilization and hostile to those who brought it. The other was that of the "noble savage." This image, popular among European writers, persists until today. It is the idea that Native peoples lived in a sort of Eden, trading lightly upon the land, always respecting their environment, and free from the corruption of the outside world. As the quote above shows, Mann's book shows that Natives were, in short, human.
Mann argues that the idea that the European settlers encountered an unspoiled wilderness in the New World roamed by a few "primitive" Indians was a myth that Europeans repeated in order to sanction their seizure of North and South America.
In fact, Mann argues that the native population in the New World before 1492 was much larger than has been previously recognized. He contends that a multitude of diseases the earliest explorers brought with them, to which the Indians had no resistance, led to a massive and devastating reduction in native populations. Before that time, however, native groups had developed highly sophisticated cultures.
Further, and most importantly, the Indians had developed a sophisticated agriculture, far superior to that practiced by Europeans. As evidence of this, he notes that Indian crops such as potatoes were brought back to Europe and quickly became staple foods. He states too that such areas as the Amazon rainforest, which we think of as "natural," were actually deliberately developed by the Indians.
Throughout the Americas, the native groups controlled and manipulated their natural environment as much as the Europeans did in Europe, for example by starting large forest fires to clear the land. However, these methods differed from European ideals of cultivation and taming nature. Because the Indians did not settle strictly in one place or put fences around their fields, the Europeans assumed they did not "own" the land and so took it for themselves.
Mann contends that even to this day, we have much we can learn from Indian agriculture, such as how they amended the soil to enable the rainforests to flourish.
The central point of Charles Mann's book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, was that the native people in North and South America had developed extremely sophisticated culture long before the arrival of Europeans. Mann, a journalist who first became interested in this issue when on assignment in Mexico, attempts to address two issues in this book, the complexity and sophistication of early civilizations in the Americas and the reasons why this complexity is underestimated in the popular imagination.
For him, the crucial dates are the arrivals of the first Europeans in the Americas in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The native population had no resistance to the epidemic diseases brought by the Europeans, especially smallpox, resulting in a catastrophic death rate which Mann estimates as affecting approximately 95 percent of the native populations. This caused the collapse of native civilizations in short order, meaning that many of the accounts on which images of native populations are based are not of the civilizations at their peaks, but of them after a devastating collapse.
The main part of the book covers in some detail the complexity and achievements of three early American cultures, the Incan, the Mayan, and the eastern tribes of North America.