Charles C. Mann – 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
A difficult-to-put-down book about life in North and South America before Columbus. The author takes a bit of a gonzo journalism style, inserting himself into the story. This isn’t always very interesting, at least in his case. Mann is not a historian or a scientist, and it shows. This isn’t always a bad thing, but for a more rigorous treatment, readers will have to go elsewhere.
Mann also declines to tell a narrative history, chronological or otherwise. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t find it here. Instead, Mann takes a thematic approach, with thorough investigations into smallpox, Pleistocene migration patterns, the domestication of maize, and more. I happen to enjoy this historiographical approach, though it leads to frequent Google searches to put names and events in their proper place. Other readers might not agree, so be warned.
One of the strengths of Mann’s journalistic approach is that he meets and interviews many of the historians, archaeologists, and scientists in the field, sharing their varying perspectives—and they don’t always agree with each other. Aside from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, this is the deepest dive I’ve yet taken into pre-Columbian American history. Despite the book’s flaws, Mann gives a quality introduction, and leaves the reader wanting more.