1491 Book Summary - 1491 Book explained in key points
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1491 summary

Charles C. Mann

New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

4.5 (202 ratings)
30 mins

What is 1491 about?

1491 (2005) is a study of the Western Hemisphere before 1492, the year in which an Italian sailor employed by the Spanish empire first set foot in the Americas. Within a century of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World, some of humanity’s most sophisticated cultures had all but disappeared. In 1491, Charles Mann sets out to recover their ways of life and remarkable achievements.

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    Key idea 1 of 9

    Scholars studying native cultures have often missed the forest for the trees.

    Northeast Bolivia, 1948. Allan Holmberg, a young American anthropologist, has just arrived in the Beni, a vast savannah stretching from the Andes to the Amazon.

    Holmberg is here to study a local Indian group called the Sirionó. He’ll spend two years with them before publishing a book about their lives. His account paints a bleak picture. 

    Constantly hungry and wet, they move among makeshift camps and hunt game with crude longbows. As far as Holmberg can tell, they have neither art nor religion; they don’t count or farm. 

    He concludes that they’re living examples of humans in what he calls “the raw state of nature.” Like their ancestors, they eke out a tough existence in a hostile world that they lack the tools to change. 

    Until the arrival of Europeans, he adds, life must have been like this across the Americas. For decades, Holmberg’s verdict was the scholarly consensus. Today, though, a new picture is emerging. 

    The key message here is: Scholars studying native cultures have often missed the forest for the trees. 

    Holmberg wasn’t entirely wrong: the Sirionó really did lead extremely tough lives during the time that he spent with them. But things hadn’t always been that way. 

    In the early 1920’s, the Beni had been home to around 3,000 Sirionó Indians. They weren’t just nomadic hunters, either – they lived in villages and also grew crops. Two things changed that. 

    The first was disease. Over twenty years, smallpox and influenza epidemics reduced the Sirionó population from 3,000 to just 150 – a 95 percent loss in one generation. The second was state policy. As disease ripped apart Sirionó communities, the Bolivian government backed white farmers’ expansion into the Beni. The military hunted down Indians, who were sent to prison camps or forced into servitude on cattle ranches. 

    Holmberg believed that what he had seen was an unchanging and primitive people. But the wandering hunters he encountered weren’t relics of the Stone Age – they were the survivors of a recently shattered culture trying to evade an oppressive state. It’s as if an anthropologist had observed refugees from Nazi concentration camps and concluded that they came from a culture that had always been starving and shoeless. With hindsight, it sounds absurd, but that’s exactly the mistake Holmberg made. 

    He also overlooked clues that the Sirionó were newcomers to the region. There was their language, for instance, which is related to many indigenous languages across South America but none in Bolivia. There was also the landscape, which was full of the remnants of a much older Indian culture.

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    About the Author

    Charles Mann is a journalist and author with a special interest in Native American societies and scientific subjects. He is a regular contributor to the Atlantic, Science, Wired, the New York Times, and National Geographic. His writing has received awards from the American Bar Association, the American Institute of Physics, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

    Who should read 1491?

    • History buffs
    • Myth-busters 
    • Americaphiles

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