Recommended: “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann


(Recommended by Phil Johnson, MBA/MSIS 2008)

Here is a recommendation for you from a recent alumnus.

Title:  “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”
Author:  Mann, Charles C.
Publisher:  Vintage
ISBN:  1-4000-3205-9

Don’t be daunted by the off-putting title.  Although it sounds like a heady post-modern celebration of Columbus bashing, it is anything but (well, there may be a little Columbus bashing).  Mann’s writing style can immediately lump this tome into the “leisure reading” category due to his engaging prose. Mann does for pre-Columbian history what Yasunari Kawabata did for the game of go — he makes it interesting and, at times, almost exciting.  Even if the subject matter bores you to tears, the writing will safely ferry you along through the white water of insomnia-curing anthropological theories and arguments.

The main premise of the book is that the pre-Columbian populations of the Americas were not the ineffectual and innocuous civilizations that our schoolbooks made them out to be.  They actually had a great effect on the American landscape ranging from the management of the so-called wilderness (both North American and Amazonian) to huge civil engineering projects around the Missouri/Illinois/Mississippi region. The book explores a variety of civilizations along with first person accounts of archeological excavations and interviews with scientists and scholars (that sometimes even border on the deliciously catty).

The author breaks the book up into three sections.  Part one can be summarized to “everything you’ve been taught about the indigenous peoples of the Americas is wrong and I will tell you why.”  Part two:  “Holy crap!  There were gazillions of people living here long before Columbus!”  Part three:  “The indigenous peoples way back when were not as unsophisticated as you think they were — they were far more sophisticated than we are now, they just changed the landscape in very subtle ways that we never noticed before; and you heard it here first.”

So, with “1491″ it’s come for the writing, stay for the (sometimes irreverent) anthropology.  You will be entertained and, if you’re not careful, you’ll probably learn a thing or too.  Never before have I read a detailed account of a species’ extinction told with such milk-through-the-nose hilarity.