1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

Mann’s book 1491 provides insight into how America was prior to the arrival of Europeans. Traditionally, we learned in school that the ancestors of the people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere at the time of the Christopher Columbus landing had crossed the Bering Strait twelve thousand years ago; existed in nomadic bands; and lived so lightly on the land that the Americas was, for all practical purposes, still a vast wilderness. But as Mann makes clear, archaeologists and anthropologists have spent the last thirty years proving these and many other long-held assumptions wrong.

Charles C. Mann

“It is always easy for those living in the present to feel superior to those who lived in the past. Much of this world vanished after Columbus, swept away by disease and subjugation. So thorough was the erasure that within a few generations neither conqueror nor conquered knew that this world had existed.” – Charles C. Mann

Mann explores how European’s migrating to the western world brought with them communicable diseases, namely smallpox. Entire villages up and down the eastern seaboard of the now United States were completely wiped out by disease. Elizabeth Fenn, a historian at George Washington University, writes that the disaster on the northwest coast was but a small part of a continental pandemic that erupted near Boston in 1774 and cut down Indians from Mexico to Alaska.

The virus, an equal-opportunity killer, swept through the Continental Army and stopped the drive into Quebec. The American Revolution would be lost, Washington and other rebel leaders feared, if the contagion did to the colonists what it had done to the Indians. “The small Pox! The small Pox!” John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail. “What shall We do with it?” In retrospect, Fenn says, “One of George Washington’s most brilliant moves was to inoculate the army against smallpox during the Valley Forge winter of ’78.” Without inoculation smallpox could easily have given the United States back to the British. (Source: The Atlantic 2002 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/1491/302445/ )

Another example of a virus wiping out entire populations in the new world is Spaniard Hernando de Soto. In 1539, he landed in the area of Tampa Bay Florida. Searching for gold, his expedition, with 200 horses, 600 soldiers, and 300 pigs, pillaged Indian villages throughout the southeast. the source of the contagion was very likely not Soto’s army but, his 300 pigs. These pigs were able to transmit their diseases to wildlife in the surrounding forest. When humans and animals live close together, they trade microbes freely. Over time new diseases are created: avian influenza becomes human influenza, bovine becomes measles. 

Excellent book by Charles Mann.

By Brian J. Podesta

Administrator and writer for WritingReal, a place for stories about people and places. Included are my musical projects and my book reviews.

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