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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus | [Charles C. Mann]

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

In this riveting, accessible work of science, Charles Mann takes us on an enthralling journey of scientific exploration. We learn that the Indian development of modern corn was one of the most complex feats of genetic engineering ever performed. That the Great Plains are a third smaller today than they were in 1700 because the Indians who maintained them by burning died. And that the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact.
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Publisher's Summary

Based on the latest scientific findings, this breakthrough book argues that most of what we thought we knew about the Americas before Columbus was wrong.

In the last 20 years, archaeologists and anthropologists equipped with new scientific techniques have made far-reaching discoveries about the Americas. For example, Indians did not cross the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago, as most of us learned in school. They were already here. Their numbers were vast, not few. And instead of living lightly on the land, they managed it beautifully and left behind an enormous ecological legacy.

In this riveting, accessible work of science, Charles Mann takes us on an enthralling journey of scientific exploration. We learn that the Indian development of modern corn was one of the most complex feats of genetic engineering ever performed. That the Great Plains are a third smaller today than they were in 1700 because the Indians who maintained them by burning died. And that the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact.

Compelling and eye-opening, this book has the potential to vastly alter our understanding of our history and change the course of today's environmental disputes.

©2005 Charles C. Mann; (P)2005 HighBridge Company

What the Critics Say

"Johnson renders this thoroughly researched, well-written history of early North and South American Indian populations in a strong, clear voice, with excellent intonation. His diction is almost too perfect." (Publishers Weekly)
"Mann's 1491 vividly compels us to re-examine how we teach the ancient history of the Americas and how we live with the environmental consequences of colonization." (The Washington Post Book World)

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  •  
    Case Tallahassee, FL, USA 09-18-05
    Case Tallahassee, FL, USA 09-18-05 Member Since 2004
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    "Hotly debated new theories, but NOT revisionism"

    Mann's book centers on new evidence of intensive agriculture, particularly in the Amazon Basin, an area previously written off because of poor soil. Recent discoveries of vast tracts of "dark earth," incredibly fertile soil altered by humans capable of supporting bumper crops year after year (always found packed with pottery shards), as well as recent surveys of vast, incredibly numerous berms, mounds, plazas, causeways, and raised fields in Amazon floodplains previously disregarded as natural formations, contrary to the earlier reviewer's claims, now challenge old assumptions about human settlement there, particularly the model argued for by Meggers. Contrary to the reviewers claims, the majority of the new generation of anthropologists and archaeologists either disagree with Meggers or at least believe that old theories about the Amazon merit reconsideration in light of new evidence. These contentions are met with the usual demonizing below.

    Mann's book has a broad focus, including the impact of smallpox, and human migration to the Americas, areas where there is similarly heated debate. Mann is upfront about this, and lets you know where he stands. He's also upfront about the zillions of political agendas at play (not merely the revisionist agenda the reviewer notes below). Mann doesn't claim any of these new theories are fact, only that there IS evidence supporting new lines of inquiry. Where things are speculative he says so.

    Agree with Meggers or the new wave, but don't dismiss this based on the review below. This IS legit discussion in the anthro community, not fiction like Menzies laughable 1421. Make up your own mind. I found this very interesting (being an anthrogeek), although a bit overbroad. Mann isn't a theorist himself, he's just summarizing new theories and models. Time and research will bear out which camp is right...maybe neither. This is NOT UFO, Atlantis, or El Dorado stuff here, just agriculture and demography.

    62 of 62 people found this review helpful
  •  
    C. D Strother Potomac, MD United States 09-27-05
    C. D Strother Potomac, MD United States 09-27-05 Member Since 2000
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    "Fascinating"

    Well-written, well-read. Contrary to one of the other reviews, I did not hear this as a scree on one political side. It seemed to me that the author went out of his way to explain the political contexts that study of pre-Columbus native American cultures finds itself in, and how lots of folks across the political spectrum have reasons to try to discount particular research results in this area. I consider myself pretty well-read, but McCann talks about recent archeaological findings( and, for that matter, revisits of the wrtings of the first European visitors to the New World)that I had not heard of that do, in fact, seem to question the "conventional understanding" of lots of pre-1491 "history." "History" in quotes, because if a people do not write it down so that people can read it later, it is hard for it to be history. This book will make you annoyed at your teachers, at your children's teachers, at the discovery channel, and at the guide that you had at those Mayan ruins. If a lot of what you have heard previously did not sound correct, that is because it was not correct. Sound of this is really the application of logic to what we have always known. For instance, does it realy make since that the Mayan civilization would be destroyed by drought alone, when the Mayan had managed very well in their environment for a 1,000 years, must have seen severe droughts come and go, and the evidence we have shows some cities gaining in size and power, while others go down, right in the middle of these supposedly disasterous environmental conditions. Other things I had never heard previously seem beyond dispute. For instance, that the Incas conquered a territory and population larger than Alexander the Great's against some tough opponents. And apparently we have a written record now of the who, when, what, and part of the why. Fascinating stuff. Some of it over time will undoubtably be proved wrong, but already much of what we thought we knew has been.

    22 of 22 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Krohn Traverse City, MI, USA 02-16-07
    Krohn Traverse City, MI, USA 02-16-07
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    "The audiobook just lost me"

    In reading the reviews I was beginning to think I was alone, but some others have mentioned it may be better as a read. I would say absolutely, without a doubt (sorry Audible, I love you) read the book. Let me explain. I listen almost entirely to nonfiction books, lectures, and medical journals and have for years. I have even periodically both read and listened to information to make sure I was not losing anything. So in that context, this is the first book that I just could not get the information from nearly as well by listening. I read the first 3 chapters, then bought the audiobook and listened from the beginning through 2/3 of the book, and then reread from chapter 4.

    Part of why the audio version does not work as well is that the book has numerous drawings and illustrations throughout that add to the information, but they are not referenced at all in the audio version. The other is that the author uses fairly complex sentence stucture, but the reader seems to read every sentence in the same cadence which de-emphasizes information in the middle of the sentences.

    As far as the content, I absolutely loved reading the book. It's fascinating to find out that there are even questions about the things we learned in school that were relegated to all of a couple paragraphs. It's not the final answer to the questions it raises, and it does not claim to be, but showing that there is enough new information to legitimatize asking the questions is interesting in itself.

    56 of 58 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Theodore Hartsdale, NY, United States 09-14-05
    Theodore Hartsdale, NY, United States 09-14-05 Member Since 2004
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    "Prequel to Zinn's"

    Charles Mann is one of the most riveting science writers working today. If you've read any of his pieces for The Atlantic or Wired, you'll know that he has an uncanny ability to make complex technological and scientific findings immediately accessible.

    This book grew out of an Atlantic cover story by the same name, but whereas the magazine piece gave you just a taste of what the Americas might have been like before Columbus, this book imerses you in a civilization that was probably more populous, cultivated, and innovative than Europe at the time. In short, Mann turns the conventional wisdom about what North and South America were like on its head. He shows how the Amazon is largely the artifact of human engineering, with giant earthworks (canals, island mounds, fishing arteries) that prove the area is far from the pristine wilderness that environmentalists make it out to be. The revelations about terra preta -- dark earth that was, by all accounts, engineered by the Amazonians with a microorganism to make it super-fertilized -- isn't just fascinating history, but could be a breakthrough discovery for present-day third-world agriculture.

    This book will give you a whole new understanding of the history of the Americas -- and maybe a little resentment towards your high-school history teacher.

    32 of 36 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Justin Columbia, PA, USA 07-08-09
    Justin Columbia, PA, USA 07-08-09
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    "Thanks Stuff You Should Know!"

    I heard about this book from the podcast "stuff you should know" and I'm glad I took the leap and got it. I am not what you would consider a history buff, but I have to say I couldn't put this book down. You can't help but think of your elementary school's Thanksgiving plays and classes talking about the Pilgrims and Indians and just questioning everything. While there is nothing absolute about what is proposed in this book there is enough credible evidence to challenge almost all of our previous ideas of the native population of the Americas prior to the Europeans landing in 1492. It is quite possible they not only outnumbered us by incredibly large, staggering numbers but they were also culturally and scientifically more advanced.

    I'd recommend this to any parent, teacher, high school student or person living in North or South America.

    12 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 05-15-13
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 05-15-13 Member Since 2005

    Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.

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    "Intriguing challenges to conventional history"

    Did did the Indians that interacted with the Massachusetts pilgrims have a more civilized society than history books give them credit for? Was the “pristine wilderness” that explorers are said to have found in North and South America actually land that had been cultivated by previous inhabitants, who planted fruit trees in abundance? Did humans reach North America far earlier than had been supposed? In 1491, Charles Mann, a science journalist, explores the evidence that the traditional classroom picture we have of America's first peoples as primitive, history-less savages that roamed in small groups through untouched wilderness might be wrong, or at least incomplete.

    The questions are intriguing. Did the Americas have complex trade networks and huge populations that lived in "beehive-like towns", which were wiped out by European disease before Europeans themselves arrived? Were Mesoamericans responsible for major agricultural innovations like corn, beans, tomatoes, and potatoes? Did the Spanish really conquer South America's empires by technological superiority, or did they get a big assist from the fractured politics of the Indian world, cultural confusion, and disease? Was the codified libertarian-style democracy practiced by Indians in what became the eastern US a big inspiration for the founding fathers? (Note that Mann uses “Indian” because he found it to be the prefered term with which modern indigenous people refer to themselves.)

    Being a journalist, not an academic, Mann keeps his style informal and doesn’t hold back his enthusiasm for the subject matter. Mostly, this approach kept my interest, though, at times, he forgets himself and reaches for conclusions that seem a little unjustified. For example, he takes a snippet of an exchange between Peruvian and Spanish priests, and reads into it a nuanced dialogue that didn’t seem evident to me in the the words actually spoken. Elsewhere, he compares an ancient city in the Yucatan to “a combination of the Vatican and Disneyworld”. Um, maybe a little too much presentism there?

    Still, it’s clear enough that the theories discussed are evolving and less controversial than they used to be. Towards explaining the uncertainty, Mann provides a sense of the problematic interaction of politics and anthropology. If Indians had populous societies that modified their environment, some argue, modern people can't really be faulted for doing the same. On the other hand, goes the response, if Indians lived in harmony with nature, their example should be paid attention to. Some tribal groups in the US worry that archaeology is being used to minimize their heritage and equivocate away the past misdeeds of whites, while some archaeologists fret that political correctness is interfering with the search for facts.

    Overall, I found the book interesting, and it made me appreciate the magnitude of what past peoples have contributed to our current world, and all that was lost with the death and marginalization of so many cultures. What further lessons, ideas, and ways of thinking might a world that developed out of contact with Asia, Europe, and Africa have brought to us? We’ll never totally know.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joseph Austin, TX, United States 12-01-10
    Joseph Austin, TX, United States 12-01-10
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    "More about possibilities than certainties."

    This is an excellent popular introduction to some of the more current science and history on Native Americans before and shortly after the European arrival. The author provides point and counterpoint to each theory and finding, so the non-academic reader can follow the debate. As such, it is an excellent book. It's not an academic history book, or original research. The writer doesn't draw his own conclusions, he just relates those of others. It's more a starting point for future studies than a definite conclusion.

    Those who are seeing a political agenda--interestingly, on both sides--aren't reading (listening) well. Mann is up front about the political motives of some researchers, even revealing them to the reader to show how even science is affected by politics. He describes a topic in great detail, explaining the old view and showing how new evidence differs. An incautious reading may interpret this as taking one side or another, but he is only revealing the current research, and telling it in an entertaining way.

    The book is arranged topically more than chronologically or geographically, which just means it jumps around a lot in time and space. He discusses the Incas, for instance, then North America, then returns to South America in the time of the Incas again, and this can get confusing if you want the book to be a textbook on Native American history. The reasons for the format are obvious if you follow it, but can be confusing. At times you may have to stop the book and recall how you got there from where you started. Probably not a book to play in the background while you do taxes or prepare a new recipe.

    It's well told, full of provocative theory, and something to get your juices flowing and make you wonder how much we really know about what we've been told. It's well worth the effort.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Nancy Waterloo, ON, Canada 01-23-12
    Nancy Waterloo, ON, Canada 01-23-12 Member Since 2010

    I love learning, teaching, and exploring!

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    "New perspectives but ..."

    This book certainly gave me a new and different perspective on the way the Native American populations lived before the arrival of Europeans. However, I often found myself a bit lost in the audio. The book wasn't organized into chapters, so it was hard to grasp a sense of direction. I was often wondering what the current passage had to do with what I had just listened to. I think that chapter headings would have gone a long way in making the listen more pleasurable.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Carl West Palm Beach, FL, United States 09-26-05
    Carl West Palm Beach, FL, United States 09-26-05 Member Since 2001
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    "Great Book, Great Reader, Great Lesson"

    Great book with a wonderful reader. Heard about some of the books premises before but not with this detail, reasoning, and scientific reasoning. Books theories will blow the minds of most Liberals and Conservatives. Should be required reading in High School.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Barry Petaluma, CA, United States 09-04-12
    Barry Petaluma, CA, United States 09-04-12 Member Since 2006

    My interests run to psychology, popular science, history, world literature, and occasionally something fun like Jasper Fforde. It seems like the only free time I have for reading these days is when I'm in the car so I am extremely grateful for audio books. I started off reading just the contemporary stuff that I was determined not to clutter up my already stuffed bookcases with. And now audio is probably 90% of my "reading" matter.

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    "Truly eye-opening"

    This is not what they taught when I was a kid in school. In fact, in those days they didn't even know most of this stuff. What Mann has done is gather together everything scholars have learned over the last 50 years about pre-Columbian America and put it together in one place. Sure, some of it is speculative and doomed to remain so, but most of it has a pretty solid body of evidence to support it. The story they used to tell us of a primitive unchanging life style over thousands of years gives way to a land thrown into turmoil by devastating epidemics. Reconstructing the society that existed prior to those epidemics gives a vastly different picture of what life was like in the New World. An evolving dynamic society that sadly lacked a written record to tell us more about what was lost.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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