Title: Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491
Author: Charles C. Mann
Major Themes: American History, Native Americans
Synopsis: What were the Americas like before Columbus landed? This book answers that question and more in this riveting, quick overview of what we can learn from archaeology about ancient American history.
Several years ago, Mom bought quite a few books about ancient history, especially ones pertaining to the history surrounding the ancient Americas. I was planning on doing a history course with them for school, but not long later I dropped out of school due to other projects I had going at the time. So Mom and I started a history book club in order to get through them—we’ve managed one book and part of another one so far! This year, I’ve decided to make time for a little bit of “extra” schooling, and I was absolutely thrilled when Before Columbus came up on the list of books to read! Although it’s a rewriting of the author’s lengthier work, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, it was still a fascinating quick study of some of the more recent findings pertaining to ancient history. I was blown away by some of the things I learned.
The author begins with exploring recent discoveries relating to the most ancient civilizations in North America. He tells how some of their practices were similar (at least in some ways) to ones we know of from ancient Egypt: mummification, how they built pyramids, and how they grew food in one of the driest places on earth—the Atacama desert. One of the main discussions in the book is how these people thrived on what they were able to grow off the land and trade, and how they were organized into highly complex governmental and social systems. Many archaeological findings are used as evidences for the theories put forth in this book. Ancient histories—of rulers who came and went—are also told, from the fragments of recorded history we have today.
Then, we see the Spanish arrive, and witness their first contacts with the Native Americans. They weren’t very nice, either, sadly. But what I found most fascinating about the later sections of the book were the discussions about why the Spanish conquered like they did. Some could say God wanted them too. Others could say that the Spanish might and advanced technology made them able to win. Or perhaps there were other reasons. However, we know that:
- The Spanish were very much outnumbered—as much as a few thousand against tens of thousands of Native Americans
- Although the Spanish had guns and horses, the Indian’s weapons could be just about as deadly, accurate, and perhaps even faster to use than guns
- The Native Americans were fairly well organized, even if their systems were starting to crumble due to alliances starting to fail.
One hypothesis put forth in this book is that the Spanish were able to take over mostly because of the disease they brought with them.
Apparently, the Spanish not only brought disease with them in the form of sick men, but perhaps also with the animals they took with them. As a result, and with never being exposed to European diseases before, thousands if not millions of Indians died. It was a tragic loss.
Still, the remnants of the society they had built up are there for us to see to some extent. Many things have not yet been discovered, or are just being discovered. I loved the discussions about how the trade networks were set up, how the Indians managed the land (not just hunting on the land, or raising a few crops, but working in organized systems that kept the soil strong and healthy), and how their governments were formed and maintained. Some parts were downright disgusting—one ruler knew his tribe needed a glorious past if they were to gain any power over the other tribes, so he rewrote their history and fully endorsed a chilling religious system that cost thousands of lives each year.
I learned a lot from Before Columbus, and I’m sure I’ve barely touched the iceberg of all there is to know about the ancient Americans. In all, despite some stories and illustrations (or even just some of the things mentioned that are done by godless peoples!) that I really didn’t like, this was an excellent book. I’m glad I got the chance to read it, and recommend it if you want a quick, but thought-provoking overview of the history of the ancient Americas.
WARNING: In chapter 3, page 28, there is a very gruesome story on the sidebar called “A Tragic Mixtec Love Story”. Includes a woman who terribly hurt herself, and immorality. In chapter 4, page 37, under the title “Fighting for the Fringe”, a mention is made of rulers marrying sisters and a drinking cup made from the skull of a defeated enemy. Chapter 4, pages 38-39 tell of Spanish atrocities against the Native Americans. Chapter 5, page 47 has a sidebar titled “Feeding the Sun”; it includes a mention of human sacrifice (notice it’s a mention, not a description), and tries to draw a parallel with executions in Europe, as if it’s the same kind of thing (which I don’t agree with). Later in the chapter, on page 49, there is an illustration fo a collapsed carving of a skull rack that stored heads of killed enemies.
Reading Independently—Ages 12 – 15 (with parental guidance), 15 and Above, Adults