What was the New World like in 1491?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Mann 2005 cover simplified cropped

Journalist Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005) is both an in-depth and an entertaining review of what the New World was like prior to the arrival of Columbus and his three ships in 1492. Mann doesn’t really focus on 1491 so much as discuss what lead up to the New World that Columbus and later expeditions explored.

Mann tackles both thematic issues (genetic research, population estimates, epidemiology) and geographic areas. This is a huge undertaking and he’s mostly quite deft at blending stories about research and history, and archaeological excavations and theories of human behavior.

One of the reasons the SGA works so hard on the stories on this website is the misperceptions (and sometimes inaccuracies) in what people often believe about archaeology, and, sadly, sometimes what is taught in classrooms. If you read Mann’s book, more than likely you will encounter an assortment of facts that are new to you. Learning is good!

Mann 2005 pg 23 map

Here’s an exercise Mann proposes (pg. 22):

Imagine, for a moment, an impossible journey: taking off in a plane from eastern Bolivia…in 1000 AD [sic] and flying a surveillance mission over the rest of the Western Hemisphere. What would be visible from the windows?


To aid you in your musings, consider the map Mann offers on page 23, and reproduced here.

How much of the terrain you would fly over would be uninterrupted natural vegetation? How often would you see fields and communities? What other evidence of human beings would you see? And, of course, (and this is trickier), how has this picture changed based on research conducted over the last generation?

Check out the quiz on the plants and creatures that people moved from the New World to the Old World and vice versa, an impact on global ecology that’s been called the Columbian Exchange. It’s on this website here, and, if you’re lucky, you can still submit your answers!