Because I’m beginning to teach a year of light American history for my son, I have decided to read some books on various subjects in American history myself. Where else to begin but with a review of life in the Americas before Christopher Columbus and his fellow explorers brought Europeans en masse in the late 1400s?

The book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann examines the evidences that we have in order to draw a picture of what the Americas were like before Columbus came. Relying on archeological evidences as well as historical records and geological studies, he draws a clear picture of how the native Americans may have lived. As he points out, much of his discussion is on life for the natives during the conquests, as the European reaction, descriptions, and memoirs are what we have as evidences of how life may have been before they appeared. I realize now better than ever that the native population of the Americas was huge, diverse, innovative, and talented. As a precursor to my own study of American history, 1491 was an essential introduction. Although 1491 is clearly a nonfiction book, it read easily for me. Maybe I was just that interested in the subject, but in general I think it is safe to say that Mr. Mann’s tone was conversational. His text was easily accessible. For such an important subject, I think this was very important. I’d highly suggest 1491 to anyone interested in early American life.

I had previously understood that there was far more about the Native Americans than I realized, but his book helped expand my understanding: picture the Americas with hundreds of thousands of people overspreading the land. Further, Mr Mann’s research indicates that the natives had a far better understanding of the land and how to manipulate it for their needs than we did. The diseases that came to the Americas certainly did kill the native populations (no one argues otherwise these days), but also it changed the ecological balance of the continents. For example, without natives keeping the forests under control, the land became far more forested than it had been before 1492. Likewise, the herds of bison that early American explorers like Lewis and Clark saw were probably not in existence during the years that the Native Americans were in their full glory. Further, I was fascinated by the ecological discussion of life in the Amazon River basin, for the natives in that area were apparently quite talented at using the river’s flooding to their advantage.

For the young adult reader (or even the adult reader less interested in original sources), Charles C. Mann’s Before Columbus provides the same information as the adult book, leaving out the extensive quotes from archeologists, anthropologists, and others. It also provides photographs and sidebars for a young adult reader to better access the same information as 1491. In fact, in a testament to the readability of 1491, I’d say that the majority of Before Columbus is the same wording exactly. All the changes is the design of the page and succinctness of the text.

At any rate, I feel it is important to understand what society lost when the Native American populations were obliterated as they had been known. The book 1491 does a fantastic job illustrating just that.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. As you say, Mann’s style is very readable. While I didn’t like 1493 quite as much as 1491, I recommend it also since it provides a fascinating look at the Columbian Exchange–the impact of food, animals, disease, etc. moving between and among the Old and New Worlds. Both books definitely filled many gaps I had about the history of the times and the impact of the globalization that was just beginning.

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