Specific themes animate Mann's scholarship in 1491. One such theme is the failure of historical scholarship. Mann challenges the fundamental belief that the indigenous people were "among the most culturally backward peoples of the world.” Mann argues that such Eurocentric bias failed to sincerely account for the advances made by indigenous people. This manner of reading history had become embedded both in Mann's life and in American culture.
When I went to high school, in the 1970s, I was taught that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait about thirteen thousand years ago, that they lived for the most part in small, isolated groups, and that they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation the continents remained mostly wilderness. Schools still impart the same ideas today. One way to summarize the views of people like Erickson and Balée would be to say that they regard this picture of Indian life as wrong in almost every aspect. Indians were here far longer than previously thought, these researchers believe, and in much greater numbers. And they were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly marked by humankind.
Exploring the failure of historical scholarship is one of the most important themes in Mann's work. He uses anthropology and sociology of indigenous people to find examples which support his thesis that there was a collective attempt "at imposing their will on the landscape." For example, the proponents of the traditional narrative point to the cultural rejection of guns as representative of being "culturally backwards." In the traditional historical sense, guns were seen as modern. Arrows were antiquated. However, a closer examination reveals that guns might have been European, but they were inefficient. The Native Americans regarded them as mostly making noise, something that was detrimental in the hunting of food. The use of arrows was far more efficient, and in their silence, more game could be gained as opposed to scared away. John Smith suggested as much: "the awful truth...it [gun] could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly." Another example is in the use of wheels. The absence of wheels in parts of the Andean culture was not as a reflection of cultural regression. Rather, it was reflective of a terrain which the mountainous realms and regions challenged the very idea of using such devices. Such an idea reflected a very astute understanding of how some tools were not fit for some jobs. In these examples, Mann is able to develop his theme that there is a failure in the historical scholarship surrounding indigenous people of the "New World." In fact, he asserts that the "New World" might not have been "New" at all as it had been culturally and socially developed for an extended period of time prior to European arrival.
The transformation of the historical narrative is reflective of another theme that Mann develops. Mann is pointed in his analysis that there was something before the Europeans. In other words, the Europeans "did not build this." Someone else had done that. The traditional view of European exploration posits that the European arrival brought with it the arrival of "civilization." Mann rejects this. He asserts that indigenous people had developed their own sense of advanced culture.
Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astronomy, and mathematics, including the zero.
The Europeans were not bringing something over, as much as destroying what had already been there. Dobyns' words of how "The Spaniards arrived and the Indians died—in huge numbers and incredible rates" is reflective of this theme. European arrival and settlement into the new world was a reality in which what had previously existed was killed off. The traditional narrative that suggests indigenous people had been unable to "do anything" before the Europeans is a way to conceal the death and destruction that enabled such a reading to occur. Mann's point is that there is not only a misreading of history, but a deliberate political agenda that emerges as a result of it. The narrative where Native Americans are shown to be incapable of developing the land and areas in which they resided was formed in order to justify a setting in which one group's arrival is linked to the death of another. Mann's analysis clearly suggests the theme of existence prior to "the other's" arrival.
In the closing of the work, Mann suggests a theme embedded in political theory. He asserts that political freedom is not an advent of the Colonial culture. The traditional narrative argues that individual freedom is something that came about once the New World was settled. Mann asserts that personal freedom has its roots in Native American culture. Everything about Native American culture embraced personal freedom. This can be seen in its insistence on parliamentary procedure, the advancement of women's rights as means of increasing discourse (The Five Nations were governed by women as well as the Great Law explicitly ordered council members to heed “the warnings of your women relatives), as well as the premise of the rights of the individual:
(“Their whole constitution breathes nothing but liberty,” said colonist James Adair of the Ani Yun Wiya [Cherokee].) Important historically, these were the free people encountered by France and Britain—personifications of democratic self-government so vivid that some historians and activists have argued that the Great Law of Peace directly inspired the U.S. Constitution.
Mobility, living off of the land, possessing individual will to live alone while seeking to be left alone are all aspects of the Americanized notion of freedom and independence. However, the traditional narrative asserts that it was a construction of the "founding fathers." Mann argues that they might have been heavily influenced through viewing the Native American construction of freedom. While colonial society was comprised of individuals who sought to conform, clung to the power of the group, and possessed in what Arthur Miller would describe in The Crucible, as a "predilection for minding other people's business," the Native American vision of freedom was quite different. The origins of political freedom is another theme that emerges from Mann's work. The liberally democratic ideal of freedom is closer to the Native American vision than anything else, suggesting that the development of political freedom might owe a debt to the Native American notion of consciousness.
In trying to explain why the barriers towards accepting an alternate view of history is evident, Mann suggests that power within the scholarly community has contributed to silencing voice. He argues that there is a fear in the scientific and intellectual community to challenge previously held assumptions.
"Archaeologists are trapped in their own prejudices,” Vine Deloria Jr., the Colorado political scientist, told me. The Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer first brought up overkill in the 1930s, he said. “It was immediately knocked down, because a lot of shellfish and little mammals also went extinct, and these mythical Pleistocene hit men wouldn’t have wiped them out, too. But the supposedly objective scientific establishment likes the picture of Indians as ecological serial killers too much to let go of it.
The fear of being "proven wrong" is one reason why the historical and scientific background that highlights advancements made by indigenous culture is rejected over traditional narratives that embrace a Eurocentric idea of how indigenous cultures are "backwards:"
"Skepticism was forceful, even rancorous; arguments lasted for years, with critics charging that Dillehay’s evidence was too low-quality to accept. “People refused to shake my hand at meetings,” Dillehay told me. “It was like I was killing their children.”
The fierce embrace of territoriality and political ideology in the academy is another theme that Mann explores in his explanation as to why specific narratives have been embraced over others.