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Publisher's Summary

A groundbreaking study that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492.

Traditionally, Americans learned in school that the ancestors of the people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere at the time of Columbus' landing had crossed the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago; existed mainly in small nomadic bands; and lived so lightly on the land that the Americas were, for all practical purposes, still a vast wilderness. But as Charles C. Mann now makes clear, archaeologists and anthropologists have spent the last 30 years proving these and many other long-held assumptions wrong.

In a book that startles and persuades, Mann reveals how a new generation of researchers equipped with novel scientific techniques came to previously unheard-of conclusions. Among them:

  • In 1491 there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe.
  • Certain cities - such as Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital - were far greater in population than any contemporary European city. Furthermore, Tenochtitlán, unlike any capital in Europe at that time, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and immaculately clean streets.
  • The earliest cities in the Western Hemisphere were thriving before the Egyptians built the great pyramids.
  • Pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico developed corn by a breeding process so sophisticated that the journal Science recently described it as "man's first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering".
  • Amazonian Indians learned how to farm the rain forest without destroying it - a process scientists are studying today in the hope of regaining this lost knowledge.
  • Native Americans transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already massively "landscaped" by human beings.

Mann sheds clarifying light on the methods used to arrive at these new visions of the pre-Columbian Americas and how they have affected our understanding of our history and our thinking about the environment. His book is an exciting and learned account of scientific inquiry and revelation.

©2016 Charles C. Mann (P)2016 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"In the tradition of Jared Diamond and John McPhee, a transforming new vision of pre-Columbian America." (Richard Rhodes)
"Every American knows it was a vast new world that Columbus found in 1492, and most imagine it was a thinly peopled paradise of plants, animals, and hunter-gatherers waiting for civilization. The reality, Charles C. Mann tells us in his startling new book about the world before Columbus, is very different - two continents teeming with languages, cultures, and mighty cities as big, as rich, and even more populous than the capitals of Europe." (Tom Powers)
"Charles C. Mann takes us into a complex, fascinating, and unknown world, that of the Indians who lived in this hemisphere before Columbus. He gently demolishes entrenched myths, with impressive scholarship, and with an elegance of style which that makes his book a pleasure to read as well as a marvelous education." (Howard Zinn)

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Average Customer Ratings

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  • Michael
  • Walnut Creek, CA, United States
  • 05-24-17

Thought Provoking

This was not really worth a 4, but it got extra points for interesting things to think about, even if not all were well supported. Despite the title, this is not a picture of the Americas in 1491, instead it looks at history in the Americas prior (and shortly after) 1491. It is less focused than I like in a history and a lot of the science quoted it disputed at best, but nevertheless were interesting (and offbeat). The author has a clear point of view, and does not always analyze evidence objectively. So take almost everything presented within with a grain (or more) of salt.

Nevertheless I recommend reading this, as the author, although bias, wears his bias on his sleeve, and presents the materials as alternative ideas to consider (and may become fully accepted in the future).

The book presents ideas about more advanced, more populous, more political, earlier arriving, and wider spread, early Americans that were differently (not less) developed than 1491 Europe.

I was dubious about some of the archaeological dates and analysis but I enjoyed thinking about many of the ideas presented. Particularly interesting was the possibility that some of the key features of US democracy and egalitarianism was based upon northeastern early America traditions and that US Northern anti-slavery and Southern pro-slavery might be related to the slavery beliefs of the early Americans in each area.

I found the narration excellent, clear, light and expressive and it did well with the many complex names.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Awesome Historic Accounting Well Told

Obviously extensively researched and told from as disinterested observer and not falling prey to temptation to editorialize these lives and cultures. The author takes obvious pains to not apply 21st century values and project them into what is already a deeply fascinating story on its own.
The actor was polished and clearly enunciated even difficult native names and places. Overall an excellent choice of narrator.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Not enough history or historical evidence

Mann makes both large, bold assertions about how "historians" are wrong about pre-Columbian societies in Americas and some smaller ideas as well. I found in general there just wasn't enough "meat" for me as to what it was really like. Instead, he focuses on disproving a lot of existing theories. Which might have been great if I already had a strong background in the material but I didn't.

When he does get into detail it's way down in the weeds. I don't know why this book did not resonate with me, I had in fact planned to get 1492, but just found it so difficult to stay engaged or to care or to even understand the point he was trying to make half the time. There were too many personal anecdotes early on, too much fighting the power in the middle, and too much piece by piece detail of leaders later on that never really clued me in to what these societies were really like. It just felt really tough to pull out more than a thesis from the book. I am generally a big fan of non-fiction, but this one didn't work for me.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Learn How Wrong Your Assumptions Were

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

I would recommend this to anyone who has an interest in history, as well anyone who thinks they understand what the Americas were like before Columbus arrived. Quite an eye opening history book that really uncovers the differences in what we are taught vs. what we are finding out as more research is uncovered.

Who was your favorite character and why?

N/A

What about Darrell Dennis’s performance did you like?

He made a really entertaining book that challenged many of my assumptions that I had about the history of the Americas.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

Learning about how advanced these cultures truly were.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Exposes Non-Academic Audience to The Debate Between Ideas of Pre-Colombian America's

Overall this book is full of interesting ideas and great insights into what often never makes jt into history books or the histories we have been taught.
However, I found the narration to be far too slow and inappropriate delays and interpretations of commas and sentence structure made listening difficult and sometimes unpleasant.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Carl
  • West Palm Beach, FL, United States
  • 11-01-16

Why Are We Taught a False History

Like "Lies My Teacher Told Me", this great book tells us what school boards don't about culture, civilizations, and contributions made native Americans. Eye opening and sad for the great civilizations we lost and their poor descendants who have to yet recover. Should be required reading in high school. Reader is terrific.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Great overall, but terrible pronunciation

Any additional comments?

I haven't listened to any of his other performances, but I will say that his pronunciation on the majority of the names of people, groups, and place names was really bad. I don't expect perfect pronunciation, but if someone who had no background in any of the subject matter tried to hold a conversation using what they heard on this, someone familiar with the material might not even understand what they were referring to.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Before Columbus

The scope of the book went way deeper than I was expecting. Still it laid out a background and history of the Americas that is generally glossed over if mentioned at all.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • wayne
  • Hampton, GA, United States
  • 09-18-16

I always wondered...

i always wanted to know about life before Columbus. I read about the huge herds, fish stocks and flocks of birds. now it makes sense. but it would seem the Polynesians would have played a larger role in S. America. Its good to read history. we need more on how connected the world was before Europeans decimated every culture they encountered.

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Thought provoking and revealing

I loved this audiobook and I've already re-listened to it. The only real critique I have is the speaker/reader's pronunciation of Spanish words. Quite frankly he butchered a lot of them and as a bilingual English/Spanish person that bothered me. Where he deserves me to cut him some slack is he did seem to handle pronunciation of the indigenous locales, names and God's which I struggle with mightily.
This is a book everyone living in the West needs to read/listen to.