1491 is a book that I’ve always meant to read but had never gotten around to actually picking up.  I’m very glad that I finally did.

Most teaching about the history of the Americas makes it seem like these were vast sparsely populated continents that were mostly untouched by human hands before the arrival of Europeans. But the earliest accounts of Europeans talk about how crowded it was. There were villages and cities all along the Mississippi and the Amazon and the New England coast when they were first seen by explorers. A hundred years later, all these cities had disappeared when the next wave of explorers came. What happened to them? Did they actually ever exist?

This book discusses many topics. How did people get to the Americas? How did they shape their environment? What technology did they have? How were their civilizations the same and different from civilizations in the rest of the world?

The book focuses mostly on New England, Mexico, the Andes, and Amazonia. These four very different regions all had highly developed cultures that collapsed within a few years of European contact. Most of them were destroyed by diseases that left the survivors too weak and outnumbered to repel the European advance.

I found the sections about how they had manipulated the environment to be the most interesting. Early settlers describe forests with no underbrush that were a result of Native Americans routinely burning the forest. Once they were removed, the forest regrew the undergrowth. Most of the “virgin forest” that people think covered North America was actually what grew once the Native people weren’t around to tend it anymore. Most of the abundant wildlife described was a result of herds getting out of control.

There is a lot to think about and digest in this book.