I enjoyed this book far more than I expected to and discovered far more controversy than I expected to find. Mann’s thesis is that ever since Columbus “discovered” America in 1492, we’ve assumed that he discovered “the new world”, relatively unpopulated, with pristine landscapes and small populations of very primitive people. Turns out that’s not the case. There were cities larger than London in South American, a Mesoamerican civilization invented zero long before it was invented in the old world, and the Brazilian rain forests were cultivated by human beings, not “forest primeval” forever untouched—and unused—by human beings. And most interesting of all—to me—is the suggestion that American notions of personal liberty, leagues and alliances among independent peoples, peaceful protest, even feminism, derive, in part, from the native Americans with whom the European settlers lived. Why after all did the men of Boston dress up as Mohawks when they dumped the tea into the harbor?
Mann is a journalist and a traveler, not a scientist, historian or archeologist which allows him to take a wide view, not an in-depth one. He reports the controversies but doesn’t take part in them. But he notes how amazing it is that the people of the Americas are largely ignorant of the heritage of the continents before the arrival of Europeans in 1492. On the other hand, Mann may be a journalist but this is not a superficial book. In addition to the many specialists whose work he describes, there are extensive notes and a 45 page bibliography appended. So if the Wari or the Tiwanaku (civilizations that preceded the Incas in Peru and Boliva) or the even older Olmec of the Oaxaca high central valley interest you, or if you want to read more details on the various assumptions that go into estimating the pre-Columbian population of the Americas, or you want to know more about natives crops and farming practices, Mann directs you to his sources.