Title: 1491

Author: Charles C. Mann

Completed: May 2021

Overview: Great read. It was highly recommended by many people and just never got around to reading it. Enjoyed it but looking back, I’m surprised by how few notes there are for such a lengthy book.


  • Olmec, the first technologically complex culture in the hemisphere. Appearing in the narrow “waist” of Mexico about 1800 B.C., they lived in cities and towns centered on temple mounds. Strewn among them were colossal male heads of stone, many six feet tall or more, with helmet-like headgear, perpetual frowns, and somewhat African features, the last of which has given rise to speculation that Olmec culture was inspired by voyagers from Africa. The Olmec were but the first of many societies that arose in Mesoamerica in this epoch. Most had religions that focused on human sacrifice, dark by contemporary standards, but their economic and scientific accomplishments were bright. They invented a dozen different systems of writing, established widespread trade networks, tracked the orbits of the planets, created a 365-day calendar (more accurate than its contemporaries in Europe), and recorded their histories in accordion-folded “books” of fig tree bark paper.
  • by 1000 A.D. the city had a population of as much as 115,000, with another quarter million in the surrounding countryside—numbers that Paris would not reach for another five centuries. The comparison seems fitting; at the time, the realm of Tiwanaku was about the size of modern France.
  • The Europeans won. Historians attribute part of the victory to Indian unwillingness to match the European tactic of massacring whole villages. Another reason for the newcomers’ triumph was that by that time they outnumbered the natives.
  • the Inka did not even have markets. Economists would predict that this nonmarket economy—vertical socialism, it has been called—should produce gross inefficiencies. These surely occurred, but the errors were of surplus, not want. The Spanish invaders were stunned to find warehouses overflowing with untouched cloth and supplies. But to the Inka the brimming coffers signified prestige and plenty; it was all part of the plan.