Book Report

August 21, 2017 Edition

1491, by Charles C. Mann. Published in 2011. 553 pages. $17.00.

Have you ever wondered about the ordinary daily lives, philosophies and beliefs of Mexico's first inhabitants? If so, this thick book, chock full of historical facts, maps, photos, and interesting but conflicting theories, should certainly be on your reading list. Reading it might add to or change your perspective about the very first human populations here in the Americas prior to 1491 (before Christopher Columbus arrived).

This book is a combination of science, history, and archeology; subjects that fascinate me. But I must confess, for this report, I read only the sections about Mesoamerica, although the book also gives detailed descriptions of North and South American indigenous populations and their cultures. I will read them later, but it's research on Mexican history that interests me now.

Unfortunately, no descriptions or histories of the earliest Baja populations are included in this book. Our narrow strip of land called Baja was unknown to Europeans for many centuries, and then once rumored to be an island ruled by strong and beautiful women clothed only in ornate jewelry made of gold.

This book explores the idea that Indians (the author explains that he uses that term because it is the term that natives use to describe themselves) arrived many millennia before Columbus. We do not often hear that those Indians who then populated the Americas had already developed advanced cultures long before the advent of Europeans. The cultures we now know something about - like the Olmec, believed to be the first complex culture (about 180 BC), the Toltec, and other early cultures - developed advanced knowledge of math, science, and farming methods. The Maya added complex calendars and the first knowledge of zero, and later the wealthy Aztec cultures had running water, clean streets, and cities with great populations that were more advanced than comparable cities in the countries of Europe of that time.

According to this book's information, Columbus and other European explorers certainly did NOT discover a New World that was an empty wilderness peopled only with scattered primitive villages of savages. For whatever reason, historians of that era certainly did not understand or give credit to cultural differences, and later described the Indians they found here in one of two ways, as "vicious barbarians, or noble savages!"

Unfortunately, there Indian cultures faced tragedy once they were discovered by the European explorers. These natives were quite vulnerable to all common European diseases, and the death toll was swift and massive during the first years of contact. Small pox and the plague seem to have been the greatest causes of death, but a chart in the book lists other causes of death from more common (to us) diseases, like the flu and measles, which also killed great numbers of Indians. The final statistics are both sad and conflicting. It seems no one truly knows how many natives died, but it is clear that original populations of Indians in the 'New World' declined rapidly with the coming of Europeans.

In the last century, the most common belief was that the first Indians came through the Bering Straits, walking across land bridges. They probably did so at the end of the last Ice Age, which would have happened about 13,000 years ago. However, in 1997, archeologists found human remains in Chile that are much older, possibly from 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, when the ice pack was smaller. It was also theorized that some of the earliest humans arrived in boats, in as many as five waves of settlements, as long ago as 50,000 years before Columbus. Some might have arrived before (or just after) the Neolithic Revolution! There is no certainty or agreement on this, but it’s very interesting to think about.

Ancient Indians had many of their own ideas about their history and origins. Myths and legends have been handed down through the generations, and today, when asked about the identity of the Cave Painters, some say that this was a long-lost race of giants, not their own ancestors.

So, did those ancient tribes walk from Asia, come across in boats, or were they perhaps even a part of the Lost Tribes of Israel? By this time, my head was spinning with questions and too many maybes!

Each theory pushing farther and farther back in time, all of them fascinating, and also really conflicting and confusing. I decided that this all remains a mystery, and there is much we still do not know.

This book has many maps that were helpful in understanding some of the author's theories. The three maps of 'humanized' landscapes before 1492 show different areas cleared by fire, agroforestry, irrigation, terracing, and earthworks. Views from above (modern aerial photos) were also helpful in getting glimpses of the 'big picture' of the Americas before European explorations.

The author has written four other books, many periodicals and won the National Academics Communication Award for this book. I believe that those interested in history, and theories about the first humans populating these continents, will want to add this book to their library. You can find copies at Barnes and Noble and also on Amazon.

When do you think humans first reached and colonized Mexico? Email me your thoughts at, or come visit my bookstore El Caballo Blanco bookstore in Loreto, and let’s chat about it!