Italy Before Tomatoes, Ireland Before Potatoes, and Thailand Before Chilies

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

But what was going on in the Americas before that? If you know much at all about that time, much of what you have probably been taught is wrong. That’s the core point of this fascinating book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann.

The original hardback came out in 2006, but I just read the latest version on my Kindle, which was less than 10 bucks for something that’s 500+ pages in book form.

This is one of those mind-changing, big idea books that can really shake up your whole outlook on world history. The big idea is that the Americas were far more populated and far more developed than we used to think, with quite advanced civilizations—more advanced than comparable ones in Europe at the time in most cases. The main thing that changed all this was not colonialism or conquest, but the devastation brought on by European diseases, especially smallpox.

I could give you a scholarly rundown of what’s in here or offer my critical detailed review, but I think it’s more fun to just give you some fun facts I bookmarked along the way, starting with what’s behind the headline above.

* Native Americans developed around three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation around the world, including corn, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, “all the world’s squashes,” and a good number of the beans. Before the Spanish and Portuguese started spreading things around, Thailand was without hot peppers, Italy had no tomatoes, and Ireland had no potatoes.

* Introductions went the other way too, of course. “Lawn grass did not exist in the Americas prior to Columbus.” There were no domesticated beasts of burden on either continent: the Maya, Aztecs, and Incas had to do it all by hand and foot. No “banana republics” before: bananas were brought from Africa.

* “In 1491, the Inka ruled the greatest empire on Earth. Bigger than Ming Dynasty China, bigger than Ivan the Great’s Expanding Russia…bigger than the cresting Ottoman Empire.”

* “When Columbus landed…the central Mexican plateau alone had a population of 25.2 million. By contrast, Spain and Portugal together had fewer than ten million inhabitants.”

* The image of the nomadic and simple American Indian is mostly false. Much of the continent was highly cultivated for thousands of years. The Hopewell civilization in what’s now southern Ohio may have controlled an empire extending across the current U.S, peaking in 400 AD. “Into the Midwest came seashells from the Gulf of Mexico, silver from Ontario, fossil shark’s teeth from Chesapeake Bay, and obsidian from Yellowstone.”

If you’re interested in the history of where you’re traveling through while in Latin America or just want to find out how recent discoveries have changed what we know about the world from Canada to Patagonia, you’ll learn more from 1491 than from any college history course.

  1. Shutterfly Travel Club

    Thanks for the recommendation! Another great book with similar parallels is “Guns, Germs, & Steel” by Jared Diamond- also a great read.

  2. Steph

    Thanks for those snippets form the book. Makes me want to read the whole book. I actually like life-changing ideas, this is the reason why I really want to read this book. Thanks for sharing. This book is really affordable!

  3. Jack - eyeflare travel

    Great recommendation, I’m putting this on my list to read. Jared Diamon, mentioned above, also wrote “Collapse”, which is quite a fascinating read into how civilizations implode. Some of the North American indian societies are included in that.

    • tim

      Yes, I wrote about the book Collapse last year after I read it—fascinating stuff. Guns, Germs, and Steel was mind-boggling too. If only our history books in schools were this interesting and put things into context so well…

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