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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Charles C. Mann · 12 HN comments
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In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.
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Anyone curious about how the Amazon evolved as a worked landscape (like the grain fields of Europe), should read Charles C Mann's books 1491 and 1493. What the developed world sees as an untouched wilderness threatened by development was actually, in many places, a place where large indigenous communities found ways to make the jungle bear more life-sustaining food ... while still appearing to be a jungle.

I read a book on Percy Harrison Fawcett (forget the name) and it always amazed me how hard it was for people to survive there. And by survive I mean just to take enough sustenance to keep going. It looks lush, but there's little there for humans (who are unfamiliar) to eat, and what there is to eat is hard to get or catch.
Channel 4 is in the middle of a series on recent archaeology in the Amazon[1], free to stream if you're in the UK, for the rest of us there's always torrents...


Nov 21, 2020 · inglor_cz on Native Intelligence
1491 and 1493 are two great books by the same author, delving deep into those topics. I enjoyed every line, and there was a lot of them :-)

Charles C. Mann is a genius among journalists. 1491 was mind-blowing for me, and I'm halfway through 1493 (equally good).

Most of what people were taught about pre-Columbian civilizations in America is wrong.

They were far more sophisticated than previously thought (and, for that matter, more sophisticated than Europe in a variety of ways), but their downfall was lack of immunity to Eurasian viruses. Reading 1491 is similar to the feeling one might have of encountering Chinese or Japanese civilization for the first time.

I would also like to plug a third book from Mann: The Wizard and the Prophet.

It's about two men, the godfathers of the Green Revolution and the modern environmental movement. The first, Borlaug, is a techno-optimist solving global hunger, while the second, Vogt, is a conservative vis a vis technology, modernity and demographics, and takes a Malthusian opposition to tech and growth.

I have come to see the conversation happening about tech, and between tech and mainstream American culture, as a conversation between wizards and prophets.

Neither side is wholly wrong, and both have good reasons as well as self-interest to believe what they do. But the way they understand the world is deeply different.

Fascinating, I've not read any of these books, but I'll stick them on top of my list. Do his books come to a conclusion on how to solve the "conflict" between the Wizard and the Prophet, it was hard to tell just reading the Amazon Reviews? Am I right in thinking it's worth reading 1491 first?

This might be a bit tangential, but I can't help but be reminded of this article on Two-Eyed Seeing, which says there's value in both the Western (scientific) view and the Indigenous (natural) view and they both have things to teach each other.

There's a brief video explaining in the above.

It's a topic I've not been able to find much reference to, though there's also a TEDx talk:

P.S. Even more tangential, but coincidently I was only today reading an article about the agricultural system in use in the article, growing maize, beans and squash often with the use of fish heads which was quite advanced and also nutritional -

I would read 1491 before 1493, but you could certainly read wizard and prophet on either side of that. I don't think he has a solution to reconcile the wizards and the prophets. The two approaches are not at all mutually exclusive, but wizards try to find solutions for a larger population, while prophets seek to constrain the population. One point that he makes in 1491/1493 is that native civilizations manipulated the environment much more than previously thought. The Americas were very much a worked landscape before the Europeans landed. They were just worked by deliberate fire, rather than the plough. He says that there is evidence that 1/8th of California was burned every year, which puts our recent fires to shame. The balance of that landscape and its species was destroyed when the Indians were wiped out.
These are some of the most fascinating books I've ever read. I really think anyone who lives in the new world should read them. Our default understanding of the land in which we live is so far off from the reality of its history.

These were some of the notes I took from when I read 1491:

The populations of Native North Americans that European colonists interacted with were the survivors of a continent-wide holocaust that wiped out 90-95% of their population. Smallpox spread through the interior of the content faster than Europeans explored it, leaving empty civilizations in its wake. One of the reasons there wasn’t a permanent European settlement on the eastern seaboard until over 100 years after Columbus is that until that point, the coast was too crowded with people already living there. The colonists set up in the ruins of towns that were entirely wiped out by disease. Squanto (Tisquantum) the Indian who school children will be hearing about a lot in the next week, attached himself to the Plymoth colony only after escaping from captivity in Europe and returning to his home to find everyone dead. The same plague swept through Meso- and South America, but the Spanish explored faster, so we know more about the civilizations that lived there.

Native North Americans are described as hunter gatherers, because that’s what people revert to after civilization collapses. When their cultures were intact, the land of entire eastern US was intensely managed by them through a combination of direct agriculture, regular burning to clear underbrush and encourage game species normally found in the plains to spread into the woodland, and selective planting.

At least 10% of the Amazon Rainforest was planted by the people who lived there. Rather than clearing land for agriculture, they created forest gardens, and this arboreal agriculture supported large complex civilizations that we know almost nothing about.

There are giant causeways made of earth and full of shards of pottery spreading through miles of flood plain in the Beni in Bolivia. They were only discovered in the 1960s. There was evidently a large civilization living there that we know nothing about. That’s the level of discovery that’s still possible in this subject: advanced civilizations that are new to science.

Ultimately, the thing that affected me the most that I will remember forever is the idea of “earth as garden.” Mankind has changed irrevocably every land it has settled. Even in the Americas, traditionally thought of as a nearly untouched wilderness until Europeans arrived, was intensely modified and cultivated by the people who lived there. Much of what today we think of as wilderness was in its time planted deliberately by people. The ethics of environmentalism constantly stumble over defining what “natural” is. I propose that there is no such thing. The whole earth is a garden. It’s enough to try to keep it that way.

> "...would have been even more powerful in centuries past, when 30 to 60 million bison roamed North America. “They would have been everywhere,” says Matthew Kauffman...”

Interestingly, current scientific evidence suggests that this was not at all the "natural state" of North America, and that it was actually a temporary ecological imbalance lasting for a couple centuries after smallpox and other diseases wiped out ~95% of Native Americans after contact from the Europeans -- and suddenly the bison went essentially "unchecked".

Obviously this doesn't change the evil of their almost-extinction or the need for bison as a proper balance -- just that the gigantic hordes of bison that Europeans first witnessed likely isn't the right baseline either.

See "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" for a highly readable account of evidence on both sides from 2006.


Presumably they were also unchecked many thousands of years previous, before the arrival of humans?
The arrival of humans could have also coincided with a reduction of the population of predators of bison? Just thinking outloud I'm not exactly sure what the range of wolfs and bears were before the arrival of humans
I’m currently reading it. It’s mind blowing to see that there were peoples in Americas further than 13k years ago.

For those looking to read it, make sure to get the 400-some page version of this book. There is a similarly named book aimed at grade school kids.

there's also the sequel, 1493, about the post-contact era:

May I recommend

I will add that to my list of stuff to read (I've heard of it, but your post specifically has caused me to add it).

I'm interested in the folks who were living here before the largish empires that we know about (aztecs and myans and olmecs). But my history is super shoddy... I will have to rethink about how by my understandings are in that area.

There's a lot of compelling theories in the book, 1491 [0] about how forests were modified in ways in which I elude to, and how the population of the Americas was much, much higher than just 50 million, and how the were civilization much earlier than what we had first thought.

If we just take east coast of Maryland, where the author grew up, the first explorers talk about villages that interconnected across the coastline, Chestnut and walnut trees everywhere, and established hunting grounds. Burning was an immensely useful tool to do this. Everyone had a fire starter.

Later on, early settlers saw something drastically different - a dying off population from diseases brought by Europeans that they had no defense towards. And that is why our estimates on the population of the Americas, and the level of which they modified the land could be really off.


"much, much higher"? In that book Mann argues that the higher counts are more likely to be right. 50 million is among the higher counts. The highest count reasonably argued for being just double that, so we're not talking about orders of magnitude difference.

The Americas were a vast, mostly empty (of humans) land. Except near the coasts.

The book _1491_ is a great read to learn more about what the Americas were like before the European arrival. Recent archaeology is finding that the societies in the Americas were way more complex and interconnected than most of us understand.
Saw a documentary about Gauls where they reshaped the view on what was said to be a simple civilisation (~hunters) where in fact they had a non trivial economy based on manufacture of goods (amphoras) backed by recent discovery of burried factory remains.
Sounds good... link please!
You're lucky someone put it online

Some additional info from the tv channel who broadcasted it

Apr 26, 2013 · zeteo on Why We'll Never Meet Aliens
This article is full of misconceptions. Let's address a few of the most egregious ones.

>there are billions of stars and planets in our galaxy and billions of galaxies. Humans are rather bad at fully understanding such large numbers.

There's no obstacle to working with large numbers once you understand powers and logarithms (i.e. pre-calc). Very smart people have looked at the Drake equation and it yields a very wide range of values [1].

>Christopher Columbus first landing on North America (not a good event for native Americans)

The main reason Europeans were able to take over America was disease. The Aztec effort to kick out the Spanish was hampered by smallpox [2], and colonization of North America had to wait for over a century before the native population was sufficiently depleted by disease to stop offering resistance. [3] Needless to say, disease worked unintentionally and because both sides were the same species.

> So, screw it, all movie alien races invented artificial gravity.

Or, you know, maybe they built ships with rotating crew habitats that simulate gravity by centrifugal force. (I belive 2001 does a pretty good job of showing the concept.)

> If getting humans to another star system is a 100 on some "technology ability scale", we're a 2 which is not comparatively far ahead of say, poodles - who are probably at a 1.

First off, poodles are at a zero. Second, if 10% of world GDP was dedicated to building an interstellar, multi-generation ark, we pretty much have the technology to do it right now. The technological problem is to reduce the cost to the point where the political will to do it can be summoned (probably around 0.01% of GDP).

>Maybe they want to trade with us. Well, yeah, right. If you've gotten this far it's obvious we have no tech that would interest them.


>How many years before we have a brain interface to Google? You'd know everything.

We already have Google in our pockets. But instantly finding any quote by Darwin doesn't mean I understand the theory of evolution.



[3] See timeline in


The author's central thesis - that aliens who are advanced enough to send an invasion to earth but not advanced enough to get the resources they need by other means is highly implausible - doesn't rest on the throwaway points with which you're quibbling.
If you don't understand enough to know that the extremely small probabilities that have been argued for abiogenesis can completely overwhelm the large number of planets in the universe--so much that you dismiss it out of hand--this is a bad sign of the author's competence on this topic.
I don't think anyone is dismissing abiogenesis, just that the likelyhood of life evolving on a planet, then evolving to be intelligent, then developing technology way outside our knowledge of the world (like FTL), then deciding to go out and explore in our small part of the galaxy (and with 400 billion stars in the Milky Way and billions more galaxies, I do mean small as in a cluster a few hundred light years in radius to detect human radio signatures at the very least), and THEN, deciding to come down and meet us/trade with us/invade us/destroy us/take our resources (which are very human things to do. considering how different psychologies of cultures can be on this planet, I don't think these are the only options).

I don't think anyone disputes that any of those things on the list are "possible," just the odds stacking up in our favor.

> throwaway points with which you're quibbling

Throwaway points as to how likely it is for advanced aliens to even exist and whether they might be willing to trade with us? He's attempting to refute all possible motivations that aliens might have to communicate with us.


Article: Humans are rather bad at fully understanding such large numbers.

Zeteo: There's no obstacle to working with large numbers once you understand powers and logarithms (i.e. pre-calc).

Me: The article said "fully understand" and "humans". Some scientists may indeed easily work with aspects of large number. Many people are lost. I'd say you're wrong but it's a disagreement on arguable, hardly settled points. Calling your disagreement with the author a "misconception" on the author's part is implying a hard factual accuracy on your side - and here you are both wrong and disingenuous.

The rest of your post is about like this.

>Calling your disagreement with the author a "misconception" on the author's part is implying a hard factual accuracy on your side - and here you are both wrong and disingenuous.

The first paragraph of the article is a pretty clear statement that a calculation such as the Drake equation [1] must result in a large number of intelligent alien races and that only lack of understanding for large numbers prevents people from realizing this:

> it's nearly comical to believe we're the only intelligent life in the universe. It's easy to get lost in the numbers thrown around - there are billions of stars and planets in our galaxy and billions of galaxies. Humans are rather bad at fully understanding such large numbers.

To restate my point, this is wrong on two counts:

1. The Drake equation can be understood by anyone with a pre-calc background, which is by no means rare these days.

2. Different scientists have plugged in different numbers, with the most pessimistic estimates being of under one civilization in the observable universe.


You left out the misconception where FTL travel is even possible. That's probably most likely why we'll never meet aliens... the low likelihood of them being able to harness that level of energy reduced even further by the likelihood of a ship happening to stumble across this particular rock.... and then, further still by them even caring if they find us.

Heck, there might be cloud-squid in Jupiter we're not even aware of who make better conversationalists than us. The aliens might even show up after a thousand year trip and ignore the Earth entirely.

You don't need FTL to go to nearby stars. If you built something that traveled at 1% c to the star 5 years away, and then took 500 years to develop enough to launch colony ships of its own, the descendants would cover the entire galaxy from any starting point in 20 million years.
If FTL is not possible, this makes for a very good reason to conquer the nearest habitable planets. If they are overcrowded and able to conquer Earth in reasonable (for them) time-frame, I don't see any reason why they wouldn't want to. That of course is only if "habitable" means the same thing to them as to us (liquid water, oxygen etc.).
You can come up with scenarios to justify anything, of course. The blog post seems to be discussing aliens as depicted in science fiction which almost always need some kind of handwaving ftl drive for narrative reasons. I was just suggesting the technological infeasibility of actual interstellar travel to be a more likely reason that we haven't or wouldn't encounter aliens, than their considering us beneath their contempt.

But yeah, that is one possibility.

We don't need FTL. Our current age limit is becoming more obviously arbitrary every year. Sooner rather than later we'll be able to extend our age limit to several centuries. We could spread out to all the nearby stars in less than one lifetime at even .1c. We could with generation ships anyway, but that's far less desirable. We could populate most of the Galaxy in a million years with no FTL whatsoever, and if FTL never plays out, we probably will. If we meet aliens along the way, then we do.
Your assertion that "our current age limit is becoming more obviously arbitrary every year" is lacking in evidence — it's been somewhere between 120 and 130 years for as long as we can tell, and we have not managed to surpass that even once. That's not arbitrary; it's a scientific fact.

But let's forget that. Let's grant that in the future we'll be able to quadruple the human lifespan to 480 years. For the sake of argument, I'll even grant that manned interstellar flight at 0.1c is achievable. At this rate, it will still take most of our very long lifespans to reach the three nearest systems that are candidates for habitable exoplants. You'll still need a generation ship unless you want a colony of geriatrics. (Also, once you do get there, you're very likely to find that the potentially habitable exoplanets turn out not live up to that potential in much the same way the potentially habitable Venus turned out not to, so you'll spend the rest of your extended lifespan moving on to the next system.)

If poodles are at a zero, we are at a zero too. We can "theoretically" dump massive quantities of cash into building a giant craft but we are nowhere close to making a craft or society that will sustain itself for ~100,000 years until it gets to another star. We cannot even guarantee that we can sustain ourselves with all the earth's resources without wiping out our own society for 100 years.
Where do you get the 100,000 years number to get to another star?
Where do you get any number? It's a back of the envelope, order-of-magnitude thing. We don't have anything close to faster-than-light spacecraft and there's no reason to think we will in the near future, except for pure religious hope.
>Where do you get any number?

By studying the actual quantities involved?

>It's a back of the envelope, order-of-magnitude thing.

No, that's not how you get "any number". Just some of them, the more sloppy ones.

The nearest star is like 5 light years away. With 1/10 of the speed of light that's like 50 years. Wanna make it 1/100 and 500 years?

In any case much less than the 100,000 years estimation.

>We don't have anything close to faster-than-light spacecraft and there's no reason to think we will in the near future, except for pure religious hope.

First, we don't need "faster than light" to make it to there to less than 100,000 years.

Second, we actually DO have some ideas about that, too:

> It's a back of the envelope, order-of-magnitude thing.

You... need to work on that.

There are plenty of stars within 14 light years.

If you took 100,000 years that would be a speed of 0.00014c. That is pretty pessimistic - we have put objects into space that are travelling away from earth faster than that already! (Yada yada accleration :).)

At 0.1c you can go 14 lightyears in 140 years. There are stars closer than this.

> If you took 100,000 years that would be a speed of 0.00014c. That is pretty pessimistic - we have put objects into space that are travelling away from earth faster than that already!

Citation needed. travels now at 17 km/s which is cca 6e-5 of c, twice slower than your 1.4e-4. However the bigger the object, the inertia is bigger too, so it is harder to speed up the bigger things, especially anything that would sustain life long enough for more generations. Then don't forget, as much as you speed up something, you have to speed it down too and you need the same amount of energy for that.


70 km/s. I personally wouldn't want to take that specific trip, but regardless :)

Inertia is a much smaller problem than subjecting humans to acceleration :) You can't afford to accelerate fast anyway. Thankfully spacecraft speed up and slow down quadratically with respect to acceleration.

To get to a speed of 0.00014c if you were accelerating at 9.8m/s^2 ("Earth gravity") you would need to wait...

1 hour and 15 minutes to reach top speed. (The same to slow down (ignoring relativistic effects.)) This is a drop in the bucket vs. 100,000 years, or a human lifetime :)

1 - fair enough, but I dont think the author is arguing what you claim he is, and doesnt seem to be a central point

2 - disease aside, the intent is important, the argument is that when technologically advanced meets less technological society the outcome is as much exploitation as possible

3 - artifical gravity is pretty tangential

4 - poodles being 0 or 1 is not your call to make, you as a 2 have no idea how a society at 100 would slice and dice it, its totally tangential but honestly maybe single cell lifeforms are 0, some kinda social structure ability to learn is 1, and 2 is less than a world wide society

And this is the top rated comment? None of these "misconceptions" have much to do with the main point OP is making: we think too small, and we pick the wrong analogies and frameworks when we discuss an alien visit.

If anything, your post is yet another manifestation of this. It simply doesn't matter what happened to native americans, when the entire Columbus story does not apply.

And what do your comments about googles in pockets and drake equation have to do with anything? Do you have anything to say about actual point the OP is making?


> None of these "misconceptions" have much to do with the main point OP is making

Exactly. Few of the points the OP makes have anything to do with his main argument, and most of them are illogical in some way.

Shut up, asshole. You're so disgusted with the Internet? Go eat a turnip. Then, study Ryan McGreal's response as the proper HN way to say what you were trying to say.
>None of these "misconceptions" have much to do with the main point [...] the entire Columbus story does not apply [...] what do your comments about googles in pockets and drake equation have to do with anything?

I don't see how you can make a valid point when your facts and supporting arguments are wrong. The article itself mentions Columbus, Google and (implicitly) the Drake equation. The "main point" that you mention - "we think too small" - is either tautological or self-defeating, depending on interpretation. If this was all there was to the article, it might well have consisted of that single phrase instead.

My biggest quibble with the OP is that you can never say that there are no black swans out there just because you've never seen one. No matter how advanced the aliens might be, they wouldn't be able to predict everything they would find here based on theory alone. What if their theory didn't include something they hadn't yet encountered? They would have to see for themselves by some means that, if quantum limits are what we think, could not all be remotely viewed from light years away.
We're not talking about the lottery here, we're not talking about the probability that you will be hit by a bus or the chance you have of starting a company and making it big.

We are talking about the vastness of an entire GALAXY and a level of technological advancement that comes with consequences that no one can even begin to imagine let alone predict. The entirety of human science fiction doesn't even scratch the surface as to what is possible (and due to our own biases and the need to entertain a television audience/readership is probably far more tame and boring than what is really out there) at those levels.

You're talking about quantum limits but you have to realize, to make the vast majority of science fiction watchable/readable, you have to almost entirely throw out our knowledge of modern physics. For example, every real world attempt at theorizing FTL travel has lead either to needing ridiculous amounts of energy (equivalent to the mass of Jupiter for the original Alcubierre drive which would be about a billion billion billion kilograms each of matter and antimatter) or particles with properties which we have NEVER come close to seeing (and by never, I mean not a shred of experimental evidence or even a suggestion that it exists outside of a theoretical framework). If an alien race has FTL, it's knowledge of the universe is well above ours and any attempts we can make to predict the limits of their technology is useless. For all we know, FTL travel might be as difficult as building your own solar system from scratch.

In order for us to have an alien visit that is even close to any imagined encounter in science fiction, many things that we can't speculate on would have to work out. We're not talking one black swan, we're talking about an unknowable number of factors and events that would have to work out just right.

It's might be possible (we don't even know if FTL is possible), just like it might be possible for wild pigs to evolve to fly without any artificial intervention in a few thousand years, but it's so unlikely that it's worth putting into the "Just not going to happen pile," all the while working to prove yourself wrong :)

this argument - just as that of the OP fails in its assumption that some alien species would need FTL To get here. maybe theyre just a species that lives for millenia in earth years - and can manage without gravity or limited gravity. You just dont know.
Nov 09, 2012 · rdl on Jewish Problems
What happened, from what I've read, is that initial contact put enough European disease into the population that the population and society collapsed; it was thus much easier for Europeans settling here to win.

The Amazon was, allegedly, basically a garden at one point -- the natives the Spanish eventually encountered were just broken remains of a much larger civilization which had been successful and then disappeared.

The must-read book for the context is 1491, by Charles C. Mann [1]. The main point is that pre-Columbian America was much more densely populated than previously thought, with the Native Americans managing a good deal of the ecosystem. European contact brought in diseases (mainly smallpox) that killed off the vast majority of the inhabitants, with momentous consequences for the ecosystem (e.g. the extreme proliferation of bison and passenger pigeon). But really read the book, it's very well written, based on the latest research, and quite enlightening.


That article appears to be a shorter version of his book. The book is well worth the $10.85 you'll spend on it.

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