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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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Mann is well aware that much of the history he relates is necessarily speculative, the product of pot-shard interpretation and precise scientific measurements that often end up being radically revised in later decades. But the most compelling of his eye-opening revisionist stories are among the best-founded: the stories of early American-European contact. To many of those who were there, the earliest encounters felt more like a meeting of equals than one of natural domination. And those who came later and found an emptied landscape that seemed ripe for the taking, Mann argues convincingly, encountered not the natural and unchanging state of the native American, but the evidence of a sudden calamity: the ravages of what was likely the greatest epidemic in human history, the smallpox and other diseases introduced inadvertently by Europeans to a population without immunity, which swept through the Americas faster than the explorers who brought it, and left behind for their discovery a land that held only a shadow of the thriving cultures that it had sustained for centuries before. --Tom Nissley
A 1491 Timeline
|Europe and Asia||Dates||The Americas|
|25000-35000 B.C.||Time of paleo-Indian migration to Americas from Siberia, according to genetic evidence. Groups likely traveled across the Pacific in boats.|
|Wheat and barley grown from wild ancestors in Sumer.||6000|
|5000||In what many scientists regard as humankind's first and greatest feat of genetic engineering, Indians in southern Mexico systematically breed maize (corn) from dissimilar ancestor species.|
|First cities established in Sumer.||4000|
|3000||The Americas' first urban complex, in coastal Peru, of at least 30 closely packed cities, each centered around large pyramid-like structures|
|Great Pyramid at Giza||2650|
|32||First clear evidence of Olmec use of zero--an invention, widely described as the most important mathematical discovery ever made, which did not occur in Eurasia until about 600 A.D., in India (zero was not introduced to Europe until the 1200s and not widely used until the 1700s)|
|800-840 A.D.||Sudden collapse of most central Maya cities in the face of severe drought and lengthy war|
|Vikings briefly establish first European settlements in North America.||1000|| |
|Black Death devastates Europe.||1347-1351|
|1398||Birth of Tlacaélel, the brilliant Mexican strategist behind the Triple Alliance (also known as the Aztec empire), which within decades controls central Mexico, then the most densely settled place on Earth.|
|The Encounter: Columbus sails from Europe to the Caribbean.||1492||The Encounter: Columbus sails from Europe to the Caribbean.|
|Syphilis apparently brought to Europe by Columbus's returning crew.||1493|
|Ferdinand Magellan departs from Spain on around-the-world voyage.||1519|| |
|1525-1533||The smallpox epidemic sweeps into Peru, killing as much as half the population of the Inka empire and opening the door to conquest by Spanish forces led by Pizarro.|
|1617||Huge areas of New England nearly depopulated by epidemic brought by shipwrecked French sailors.|
|English Pilgrims arrive at Patuxet, an Indian village emptied by disease, and survive on stored Indian food, renaming the village Plymouth.||1620|
|*Courtesy Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Collinsville, Ill., painting by Michael Hampshire. **Courtesy Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, N.M. (Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, 1547-77).|
Charles C. Mann, a correspondent for The Atlantic, Science, and Wired, has written for Fortune, The New York Times, Smithsonian, Technology Review, Vanity Fair, and The Washington Post, as well as for the TV network HBO and the series Law & Order. A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, he is the recipient of writing awards from the American Bar Association, the American Institute of Physics, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Lannan Foundation. His 1491 won the National Academies Communication Award for the best book of the year. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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