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1491: Revelations and Conclusions

Alexander Steffen
Garry Zellar, PhD
History 170
September 25, 2008

1 4 9 1 : R E V E L AT I O N S A N D C O N C L U S I O N S
The findings of Charles C. Man in his book 1491 challenge my assumptions of what the
Americas were like before colonization by Europeans. Mann argues that the Americas were not just
an empty land sparsely populated by people in touch with nature. There were also vast sprawling
complex masses of societies that could have been on par or bigger than their European
counterparts. In addition, the assumption that all native people came over the Bearing Strait at the
same time refuted by evidence that many different groups migrated the the Americas in a series of
waves at different times. The Americas were inhabited for far longer and by people in more
complex societies that I would have imagined before I read the book. Mann has challenged my
assumptions on how our society should perceive native people and their history.

The version of history taught to me in elementary school was that native people in North
America migrated from Northern Siberia over a land bridge about 10,000 years ago. They
eventually settled throughout the Americas, leaving unconnected bands of nomadic hunters in
balance with nature. Mann’s findings in 1491 challenge this view. The Americas were settled for far
longer and by much more complex societies similar to those in Asia and Europe. Mann noted that
the new world was not a vast wilderness but a land that was controlled and changed for human
use (through fire and other means). Some bands of nomadic hunters purposely set fire to the
forest to clear out the underbrush to create conditions favorable to small game hunting. These
observations contradict my previous assumptions that the Americas were a virgin hinterland barely
touched by man.

Te population numbers of inhabitants, their technologies, and advanced cultures in the Americas
were revelations to me. Nature canoes were more maneuverable and moccasins were
conformable that anything Europeans had. The population of the Americas was far higher than I
previously believed; some estimates were over 100 million, with over 25.2 million people living in
Mesoamerica alone. In addition the population of Tenochtitlan was far larger than the biggest city in
Europe, Paris. Cities in the Americas has vast aquiduct systems, illustrating a belief in personal
sanitation, unlike many Europeans.

Mann noted in 1491 that there were three distinct waves of migration, with the oldest one
appearing over 30,000 years ago. Most of the native groups today are from the last wave of
immigration migration about 7000 years ago. I previously believed that there was homogeneous
groups of people from the same geographic area in Northern Siberia wh crossed the land bridge
and settled all over the Americas. Mann refutes this view by stating that there are genetic markers
or haplogroups which show that some migrants could have migrated from Southern Asia or even
Japan. This is a startling idea because many native groups today claim that they were the first
inhabitants of the Americas whereas they are just another wave of immigration to this vast stretch
of land.
1491: Revelations and Conclusions

The large agricultural tradition of the Americas was completely different than what I previously
thought. I was surprised to see that Corn, or Maize as its commonly called, was almost
singlehandedly bred by ancient Mesoamericans into their staple crop, one which has highest calorie
per sunlight hour of any food plant. Other Mesoamerican plants were developed as food sources,
including tomatoes, squash and most beans. These foods allowed Mesoamericas to have higher
caloric intakes than many Europeans (over 2000 calories a day). Because of this, they were
healthier, and suffered from fewer diseases.

The belief structure of Mesoamerica were much more complex that I have ever imagined.
Instead of simple cultures based on hunting and gathering there were the vast complex cultures of
the Aztecs, and the Mayans. A very high death rate from diseases (approx 96% in some cases) of
Mesoamericans resulted in their cultures being shattered.

The native populations of the Americas were far more diverse that I would have imagined.
Many societies were lost in the years following the European conquest of the Americas. This is a
shame, as their cities were larger and cleaner than those in Europe, some of their technologies
were far more advanced and their impact on the ecology of the Americas was more pronounced
that I thought. My perceptions of how to perceive native peoples and their history have been
changed because of the revelations made by Man about the complex societies that existed before

Alexander Steffen

Sep 25, 2008