Any self-respecting American History class should start with a little pre-Columbian history. In order to understand what the Jamestown or Mayflower colonialists dropped themselves into, or even just for a perspective of the “other side” of all the battles and raids that you will later learn about. For a good primer on pre-Columbian history I love 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C Mann (and I’m looking for recommendations of others).
Know before you read:
Charles C Mann is a journalist, specializing in scientific topics, NOT a historian. As such, he approaches the material in a very different way than another history-anchored writer might. This book may be a little more science-heavy than you are used to, but it is historical science. I loved it. His style is incredibly easy to read and – I am no science buff but – I was able to understand it all no problem.
Also, please note the subtitle indicates “The Americas” – this is a look at BOTH North and South America pre-Columbian history. If, for some reason, you just don’t care about South America, you may have to pick and choose which chapters you read.
New revelations in pre-Columbian history
More evidence is being discovered and analyzed every year, and Mann acknowledges the controversies in the subjects discussed. But there are generally accepted trends in the research (changes in the last 20 years or so) that are the heart of this book – populations were higher, societies more culturally advanced and the indigenous peoples actively controlled their environment in ways we had not previously thought.
Before I read this I had no real idea what American pre-Columbus looked like. Basically due to simple ignorance, I unconsciously had bought in to the Eden-like untouched-by-man image of the continent. I imagined Yosemite wilderness minus the tourists. I pictured huge empty swathes of the Great Plains with a few horses running wild here and there.
I had absolutely no idea how populated the Americas really were before Europeans wiped all the indigenous people out, or how they lived. Mann looks at the evidence that points to higher populations pre-Columbus: anthropology, archeology, even the genetics of native plants.
I really enjoyed this book – it taught me a lot. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C Mann would be a great place to start your own American History class.