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Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 by…

Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491

by Charles C. Mann

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Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 is a book that reveals the complexities of life and cultures in the Americas before the arrival of the infamous Spaniard, but also highlights the complexities of ever-evolving historical perspective. Charles C. Mann avoids the traps of diluting history in order to make it more digestible for young readers. He explicitly paves the path that reveals how he came to ask the questions, genuine, complicated, involved questions, that eventually led to reasearching and writing the book. Mann direcly relates how these questions comprise the foundation for the organization of his book, which is segmented into three parts, each of which is titled with a question.
Mann sets the tone early on by challenging what he learned in school with what researchers have now discovered. Throughout the book, he expounds on the various methods, tools, techniques and theories that govern modern day research. The first page of the first chapter starts "Historian thought they knew how civilization began...however since the 1990s, a series of astonishing discoveries ...has given us a new view." He makes reference to and explains how radiocarbon dating, archeology, DNA, linguistics, and geology (stratigraphy) force historians to rewrite the written. Furthermore, because Mann presents competing theories, for example regarding the origins of maize, the reader begins to question the idea of a single, knowable reality. He also makes a point of illumintaing ethnocentricity and bias that occurs when comparing cultures.
The book makes points similar to that of the Pultizer Prize winning non-fiction novel, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Mann's book explains how South America's lack of fauna led to limited domestication. While this inhibited trasportation of the Americans,it also kept Americans safe from zoonotic illnesses. Unfortunatly, smallpox and other diseases brought by Europeans devistate populations in the Americas. In an example involving the Incas and Pizarro, Mann goes on to dismiss the idea that guns and steel were the sole reason for Spanish victory, citing "recent studies of Incan culture, however, have made some historians think that the Inca were not fated to be defeated in battle...[they] had extremely efficient and powerful weapons" (40). There are a plethora of maps and every other four or fives pages displays a self-contained box of specific information regarding a very narrow topic. While the book is sprawling and contains volumuous amounts of information, tackling the whole of the Americas, its value for promoting science-based inquiry and research is immeasurable. ( )
1 vote jamiesque | Mar 12, 2012 |
I'm rather suspicious of the new trend of "adapting" popular adult nonfiction for younger readers. In the case of James Swanson's Manhunt, cut down to Chasing Lincoln's Killer, although I did read through the whole book I found it very choppy.

Before Columbus, cut down from 1491, however, I found to be very well done. The book flows seemlessly and is very well-designed to catch the eye and maintain interest, with different type, boxes with interesting facts, etc.

Charles Mann's basic premise is that the Americas before Columbus and other Europeans arrived, was very different than students have been taught - and archeologists have thought. He talks about how the Spanish conquerors were able to destroy ancient and powerful civilization, human sculpting of the rain forest, and more. The chapters I found most interesting were on the natives of North America and how they shaped the "wilderness"; as well as the ideas of wilderness came to be firmly lodged in the American mind.

Verdict: This is a challenging but accessible history for middle grade readers and up. Of course, it always helps to be able to hand over a book and say "everything they're teaching you in school is wrong. read this to find out why!" but you'll need someone who's at least mildly interested in history, Native Americans, or archaeology to successfully booktalk this.

ISBN: 978-1416949008; Published September 2009 by Atheneum; Borrowed from the library
  JeanLittleLibrary | Dec 31, 2011 |
Although written for middle school ages, this was a very interesting book about what life was like in the Americas before Europeans arrived. Using recent finds and the latest theories of paleontologists and archaeologists, Mann paints a very different picture from the one most North Americans learned in school. The peoples of the Americas were more advanced and "civilized" than they are often given credit for and built great public works and complex societies. Current thinking is that it was their lack of resistance to the various germs and viruses carried by European adventurers and explorers that led to the Indians' downfall. With a decimated population from the quickly spreading epidemics of diseases like smallpox and the lost of many of their wisest leaders, the various nations were unable to defeat those, such as Cortes and Pizarro, who came looking for glory and gold, much less the later waves of settlers looking for land. A nice introduction on the subject.
1 vote hailelib | Nov 20, 2011 |
Amazing information about the western hemisphere before the coming of the Europeans. ( )
  herbcat | Aug 15, 2010 |
I love this book. Based (yes, based-- it's been reworked for writers who are more familiar with producing kid-friendly books) on Mann's bestselling "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, this current book sets for itself the formidable task of shedding some light into classrooms and homes across this country.

Which is to say that unbeknownst to the powers-that-be that produce textbooks, that scientists and historians have plunged ahead and made quite a few discoveries that have debunked what is currently being taught in the classroom. Thus this book shows where carbon-dating that Caral was founded before 2600 BC, and that fishfarms were once strewn across South America. As well it draws attention to Cahokia and the implied trade routes that spanned the our part of the northern hemisphere.

If there was one feature that I wish the author's had included, it would have been footnotes. Not that kids would be likely to use them, but because I think it would be good for them to get used to seeing them. Other than that, I think this book did a marvelous job of demonstrating that History isn't etched in stone. There are many things to learn and discover, and dates are the least of it.

Part ONE -- How Old was the "New World"?
Cities in the Desert
Genetic Engineering
From Olmec to Maya
To the Land of Four Quarters

Part TWO -- Why did Europe Succeed?
The Great Meeting
Long, Long Ago
Disease-Free Paradise?

Were the America's Really a Wilderness?
Land of Fire
The Created Wilderness

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Highly Recommend this one.

"Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491" is a fabulous book. As someone who was trained to be an Historian, I love the high quality approach that the publishers have maintained in this book. Not only is it visually attractive and formatted for young people (okay, and adults too), but it bypasses the ridiculous textbook attitude that we know 'all about what happened'. The book explains clearly that we certainly don't, and it demonstrates this point by examples where recent discoveries have turned previous thinking upside-down.

Great format for youngsters. There are pages that deal with particular questions in easy-to-digest format.

Note that the book is written on the 8th Grade Level.

Pam T~
history-trained mom and reviewer ( )
1 vote PamFamilyLibrary | Apr 28, 2010 |
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One of my ancestors was John Billington.
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an adaption of his 1491 for younger readers.
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This study of Native American societies is adapted for younger readers from Charles C. Mann's best-selling 1491. Turning conventional wisdom on its head, the book argues that the people of North and South America lived in enormous cities, raised pyramids hundreds of years before the Egyptians did, engineered corn, and farmed the rainforests.… (more)

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