So it seems like it’s History Month here; next up on the list is Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

I say “history” and that’s more accurate than not, but this isn’t a straightforward chronology of the pre-Columbian Americas. Mann is a journalist, and what he’s doing here is almost pop historiography as much as history—he’s presenting not only a synthesis of the current state of scholarly knowledge about the Americas before Columbus, but also how that knowledge developed over time, and the big controversies in the field (past and present).

1491 is definitely written in a journalistic mode—Mann interviews scholars and quotes them directly rather than simply citing their work; he travels around to see archaeological digs firsthand; he’s interested in the personal conflicts of scholars (and boy do they have a bunch of them)—but it largely avoids the failures of that style. He’s careful not to polemically overstate his case, to explain when what he’s saying is controversial, and to talk about how we know things. By all accounts, his book is a credible and accurate source.

As to the actual content of the book, I found it a source of constant surprise and new information. Mann (and current research) paints a picture of a pre-Columbian America that is densely populated by sophisticated and inventive civilizations who deeply shaped the landscape of the Americas physically, ecologically, and agriculturally; a people who were devastated by European diseases and killed off in shocking numbers, leaving behind the much emptier landscape that shaped the wildly inaccurate European conception of pre-Columbian America.

That summary, abbreviated as it is, isn’t anything like what I learned in high school, of course; Mann goes into the why of that a bit at the end. Part of it is that some of these findings are new—Mann cites a lot of work that was done after 2000, which naturally means that it’s too recent to have been reflected in any education I might have had. Part of it is due to the interactions of disciplines: the historians who write American history textbooks aren’t necessarily familiar with what archaeologists are doing. And of course historically, a big part of it is flat-out racism.

Regardless of why you were never taught this stuff, Mann’s book is so compellingly readable and richly informative that you should remedy that lack. Super-highly recommended.


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