Category Archives: nonfiction

1491

ebvutoeok4gabapevcysIf you haven’t read Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus yet, you should. Written in 2005, 1491 is a fascinatingly deep survey into turn-of-the-millennium American anthropology. The Americas were more populous, more densely populated, and more technologically advanced than we were ever taught — or so the literature says.

But what makes 1491 particularly important — not just in terms of Mann’s light, easily-readable style (he’ll suck you in and won’t let go) — is the amount of rigor he has put into the work. Take a look at the notes and bibliography: the latter takes up a huge chunk of the back of the book, while the former delves even deeper into a topic that clearly fascinates Mann than the main narrative does.

Moreso, Mann has given all the voices their fair share. While it is clear that he is more persuaded by the more recent literature, as he weaves his tale together he makes sure to give very staunchly critical voices — such as the Smithsonian’s Betty Meggers —  room to breathe. This is a level of rigor Mann never needed to put into what is, at the end of the day, a popular work — and a survey, at that; nothing too in-depth on any specific subject — and it is perhaps why 1491 is so deeply and richly successful.

Anybody who is interested in American anthropology needs to have this book on their shelves. Not only does it present an early-2000s snapshot of the discipline, but it also yields up a legendarium’s worth of tales — not just of the conquistas, but also of the rise of the Aztec and Inca empires, of the wars that rended the Maya poleis. It also gives a much more jaundiced view of the Puritans’ meeting with the Wampanoag, and shows that Mixtec and Zapotec history go deeper than previously believed.

Any time I try doing a worldbuild centered on the Americas, 1491 is my primary source. Can there by any higher honor?