As my son passed through his elementary school years, his history education fell into a predictable topical routine: Revolutionary War, China, Native Americans, Revolutionary War, China, Native Americans, and just keep going. His teachers did cover other topics, but these were the big ones, and they kept coming up over and over again. Why this occurred is a mystery, especially with so much great history to learn from in other eras and locales.
This defective merry-go-round of history topics can be remedied, in part, by reading 1491, a book that describes life in the Americas in the year before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Author Charles C. Mann also recognized the dearth of Meso- and South American content in the typical English speaker’s history studies, and decided to issue a correction by writing, in no particular order, on every conceivable pre-Columbian topic. Whether it’s archaeology, agriculture, religion, art, economics, ecology, or geology, if it happened in the 15,000 years before Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere, it’s probably somewhere in this thick book.
Mann’s work revolves around two key theses. The first is that early North, Middle, and South American residents were as numerous as their European counterparts, as technologically advanced despite a lack of ready access to the same metals and land resources found half a world away, and as deliberately impactful to their environment as any comparable society. Some of his specific statements are at odds with the traditional “noble savage” interpretation of Native American history. Mann recognizes this, and includes sufficient documentation in support of—and opposed to—his conclusions.
The second thesis, though somewhat downplayed in the text, is that all of these features and advances of Western Hemisphere civilization came to an abrupt end when Columbus and his contemporaries stopped by and sneezed on the immunity-lacking natives.
The book is well researched, expansive in its coverage, and engrossing in its presentation. If it has one deficiency, it’s that the author did not provide any linear structure to the overall text. While adjacent chapters do bear some relation to each other, the book as a whole lacks any type of point-A-to-point-B direction, whether chronologically, geographically, culturally, or topically.
The book originally came out in 2006; I read the second edition from 2011, which enhances the text with the latest relevant research. Mann has also released a companion volume, 1493, which documents more fully his second theses of widespread change after the initial visit by the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. If you think you know about Indians—a term Mann uses due to its continued popularity within Native American tribes—you can learn even more, and learn it thoroughly, by picking up a copy of this revised work.