1491 book branding in stylized font

The Americas were more populated than Europe at the time of first contact

The Americas were home to some of the world’s most complex and established civilizations in the world at the time of European contact.

As many as 100 million people may have lived in the Americas in 1491, far more than Europe. In the next century, an estimated 80 million of them died, largely because of diseases humans didn’t understand yet.

Though those estimates are still actively contested, a growing number of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians defend the concept that perhaps as many as one in five people on the planet died. It would have been the largest epidemic in human history.

That massive change in understanding pre-Columbian was chronicled in the celebrated 2006 book 1491, by Charles C. Mann, who had written on the issue for the Atlantic. It made a stir then, and I finally got to picking through it, regularly reading news articles on the topic.

I shared my notes below.

In Mann’s chronicling of this history, after first contact, Mesoamericans died in far greater number from European disease than the other way around because, by a quirk of evolution, European civilization developed around domesticate-able animals. Proximity to animals gave Europeans diseases and the immunities that native Americans didn’t. (Massive drought sure didn’t help.)

It’s a book primarily aimed at complicating the narratives of native peoples. Traditionally, we think of Mesoamericans as either the noble savage or the primitive hunter-gatherer. Mann does use the word “Indians,” as he describes finding native peoples most often self-identify with the phrase.

  • Ibibate in land-locked Bolivia is a massive set of mounds of crockery showing an enormous society, central planning  (p. 6)
  • First peoples likely came to the Americas far earlier, perhaps in waves, starting as long a 50,000 years ago. (16)
  • “The human career is divided in two, everything before the Neolithic Revolution and everything after,” said Ronald Wright of the beginning of farming 12,500 years ago.
  • It happened in the Americas as well but other global movements didn’t. For instance, the writing system of Summerian society 5,000 years ago spread across the continents except New World. (17)
  • Maize was cultivated by humans because it doesn’t reproduce itself, and biologists remain puzzled by how they would have developed this over time. (18)
  • Other concepts happened in the Americas even before elsewhere: a Mayan carving from 357 AD appears to show the use of zero beyond just a placeholder, perhaps before anywhere else in the world (19)
  • Tiwanku, in present-day Bolivia, may have had 100,000 people by 1000 AD, something Paris wouldn’t do for 500 more years (22)
  • On first contact, many Indians thought Europeans ugly, unfit and unclean as French and English didn’t bathe much in 1500s (46)
  • Early French and Spanish expeditions were soldiers accustomed to hard living. English ships were more often backed by venture capitalists and they often came underfunded and unprepared. The pilgrims of Pautuxet (Plymouth) ransacked Indian graves to survive the first winter (51)
  • Pope Paul III spoke out against Indian slavery in 1537, rendering Squanto free (53)
  • Why did every Indian culture succumb to European power? (64) Even though the Inka was in 1491 perhaps the most powerful empire on earth (more than Ming, Ivan in Russia, or the Great Zimbabwe), they were overtaken by Pizzaro’s 168 Spanish troops in 1533. But the Inka had been ravaged by germ warfare.
  • For cultural retention, 1,000 men were employed by this Inkan socialist state (that had vanquished hunger) in the Qosqo capital who did nothing but remember where cultural artifacts were and their history (73)
  • From 1533 to 1565 various outbreaks killed 9 of 10 Inka (92) but the first came before Europeans landed, likely from Hispaniola which had a 1518 outbreak. Therefore Western Hemisphere was already depopulated by the time Europeans arrived. If 130 years of contact brought down population estimates 95 percent it had to have already been 20 times bigger before disease.
  • In 1491, there were 90 to 112 million people living in the Americas, 25 million of whom were in central Mexico, more than Europe (though the first estimates were as low as 8.4 million people). That might mean 80 million people died of disease — or one in 5 people on the planet, the largest epidemic in human history. But these numbers are hugely contested (94)
  • De Soto ravaged the southeastern U.S. in 1539, which he first saw as a region “thickly set with towns.” But 100 years later, a Frenchmen came and saw a region depoulated. Was it the pigs De Soto brought and traveled with? (98) We know there were fewer animal candidates for domestication in the Americas so less close contact other then dogs and llamas and a few others.
  • The reason European societies associate native populations as nomadic hunters is because all the urban centers were wiped out by disease (99)
  • Small population of Indians first coming to new world (50,000 or more years ago) meant more genetic homogeneity, which means (good) passed on genes without many hereditary diseases (like cystic fibrosis) but also meant (bad) limited ability to ward off some disease with immunity which might be why Indians so anomalously were impacted by disease (103). Genetically similar Siberians had similar high rate of death in 1760s after their first contact with European Russians
  • There isn’t even a particularly clear strategy for avoiding the outbreaks that happened after contact (106) so what does that mean?
  • A Blackfooot Indian wrote: we had no sense you could get a sickness from another man like you can’t get a wound from another man (110), as quarantine was European from its close proximity with domesticated animals
  • Ritual sacrifice for the Triple Alliance (imprecisely called the Aztecs) were part of its cosmology of powering the sun but no more brutal than the executions of Europe (110)
  • Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec society in present-day Mexico City, was cleaner, larger and more impressive than Paris when Cortes and his conquistadors got there in 1519 by using factionalism to create a force with regional enemies (126)
  • In 1519, there were 22.5 million people living in the Central Mexico valley [Aztecs], before the arrival of the Spanish-Cortes conquistadors and small pox epidemics. By 1620, just 100 years later, the population was just 750,000. The population of that region didn’t return to that peak until the 1960s (129)
  • Nowhere was there a “secular” understanding of disease. Europeans knew disease was contagious of a kind but that god determined what happened to you.
  • The Aztecs even didn’t quite blame the warlike Spanish, as it was will of god, and nothing they wouldn’t do themselves. The point is millions of people lived here and were not monolithic (132) and it’s a huge loss that so much culture didn’t get preserved and treated fairly to influence the rest of the human experience
  • The University of Pennsylvania’s Edgar B. Howard led the Clovis discovery work in New Mexico, long thought to be the earliest culture in the Americas, dating from 12,500 to 15,000 years ago (152) but considerable new evidence shows people have been here 20,000 or 30,000 years or longer still
  • The Americas in the Pleistocene era had horses and camels that could have been domesticated and given Mesoamericans their own zoonotic diseases that Europeans might have died from upon contact. But those animals died out before being domesticated (158)
  • Indians spoke as many as 1,200 separate languages in as many as 180 separate families, Europe has just 4 language families and most in the Indo-European, though some argue this (164)
  • Under ice, England and Northern Europe was empty 12,500 years ago but not the Americas. Is it really the new world? (173)
  • Mesoamerica first harvested maize and tomatoes and peppers (177) was at least as important and distinct with the Andean potatoes (separated by Panama/Colombia with much less interaction than across Eurasia)
  • Science is full of examples of “not being able to find what you are not looking for” archeologist Wiley said. This book is full of examples of science overestimating its confidence and crackpots pushing new theories (183)
  • Maize does not propitiate itself like other major cereals (wheat, rice, barley) which is why it’s cultivation in Mesoamerica is so remarkable, as it’s so productive when cultivated (194) Probably the first and maybe greatest act of genetic engineering was to develop corn from something like teosinte — it would get you a nobel prize today, or protested by Greenpeace, says one academic
  • The Olmec were influential early society but may have developed alongside others , dating to 1800 BC (208) and built San Lorenzo, the oldest currently known large scale settlement in North America
  • There are Africanist historians who think Olmecs were visited by or originated from Africans but this is disputed and fringe. (Though statues have African like features). Others say maybe Shang dynasty Chinese could have visited to give writing and help develop so quickly (209)
  • Writing systems seem to always begin with counting, as we know from Summerians (213)
  • Mesoamericans had three calendars and used zero as both (a) a number to be manipulated for, as an example, influencing an average and (b) a placeholder to make 1 and 10 different. Roman numerals didn’t have that (215) and possibly in Mesoamerica before 32 BC and therefore centuries before zero’s “invention” in India
  • Standard 20th century historian view if Mayan civilization demise was they overshot their environment and it crumbled from over utilization (246)
  • Indians long had control of nature, particularly using incredible widespread fire burning techniques to clear away underbrush (251) and Indians also used fire for hunting by encircling animals
  • The heart of the North American moundbuilding society Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis, had a pyramid bigger than Giza in 1100 AD (256) part of a 4,000 year old Midwest mound building culture we know very little about
  • Pre Cahokia may have over extended its hunting and turned to maize and it might have driven the need for central granaries which grew a city of 15,000 in 1100AD, before deforestation and rerouting canteen creek may have caused more flooding (254) sound familiar to today?
  • Indians transformed the forests not just by burning and planting but also changing forests with mast trees (like chestnut, acorn, pecan to pick ) Europeans didn’t even understand the fruit/nut trees (orchards) and big clearings were by human intervention (256) Bartram and others missed it because it was “surgery with so few scars,” an exception being Cahokia, which we only discovered relatively recently.
  • The Mayan culture (200-900 AD) height was similar to Greek, a common culture defined by strong city- states so that Athens and Sparta were like Mutal and Kaan (271)
  • More people lived in the Mayan heartland of the Yucatán peninsula in 800AD than today. Many do believe a major drought and over population led to death and decline (277) though it’s complicated. (Think of Soviet Russia, which was hit with major drought in 1970s and 1980s that contributed to the failure of a repressive regime with few friends, but no one says it was purely climate that did them in (279)
  • In the idea of Europeans “discovering” not the totality of societies but its remnants, the hunter-gatherer Yanomami are likely not emblematic of culture as a whole but survivors (289)
  • Pangea split 200 million years ago, and then Columbus began to piece the seam back: maize, pepper and tomato from Mesoamerica (later imported to Italy), potato from Andes later brought to Ireland, apples from Middle East.
  • Indians themselves were controlling the forest in check with burning and hunting. Forests in New England were overrun when Europeans came because the Indian Way of life was transformed by disease (313)
  • The 60 million bison population and passenger pigeon numbers were viewed as overwhelming to Colonials because those populations had been controlled by Indians, as one in 5 Indians were dying in first century following first contact (318) Indians were a keystone species. Why do we separate ourselves from other animals? An invasive species killed out a keystone.
  • “If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world largest gardens (326) to think otherwise is the “pristine myth”, because we know the eastern woodlands like most of the country were controlled by Indians
  • The 5 nations of upstate New York influenced Franklin and perhaps the U.S. constitution, in addition to the American concepts of individuality  and liberaterianism, informed by the frontierism informed by Indians