This was actually quite a different experience from reading 1493. For one thing, it had a lot more material to cover, and as such, compared to the other book, I was left with so many more questions (I guess it's not really a bad thing per se when a book makes you want to learn more about whatever topic it covers, though). It was also more…political, I guess, is the word I would use. I feel like before Mann wrote this he must often have thought "If I had a nickel for every time someone regurgitated some completely wrong-headed notion about Indians, I could definitely break a coinstar machine." I also have a complicated relationship with coinstar machines, so Imaginary Charles Mann has my sympathy. And he's right: everything you've learned in school about Native Americans is probably pretty wrong.
There's a little passage early on in the book, when Mann is describing the Siriono people of Bolivia, that I'm going to quote here because it so perfectly encapsulates what I think is the main argument of 1491:
"Before Columbus, Holmberg [who first sudied the Siriono in the early 20th century] believed, both the people and the land had no real history. Stated so baldly, this notion–that the indigenous peoples of the Americas had floated changelessly through the millennia until 1492–may seem ludicrous. But flaws in perspective often appear obvious only after they are pointed out. In this case they took decades to rectify."
Native civilizations of the Americas were largely exterminated by European diseases, often before making contact with European people (diseases moved across the continent faster than the Europeans themselves), and so the accounts that we have of these societies are often those written by Europeans, and are descriptions of these peoples after they'd been devastated by various epidemics. What seemed to Europeans to be a virgin, untouched wilderness (both in North and South America) was often the result of millenia of Indian stewardship that had only recently been disrupted by societal breakdown.
It's only in the last century that we've begun to get a better picture of what the Americas were like before the Europeans arrived here. Complex societies to rival those of the Old World flourished and passed into obscurity many times over before Columbus ever set foot on Hispaniola. For centuries, much of this history has been obscured, much of it lost. Who knows what those cultures and their people would have contributed to humanity if they'd ever been able to interact in the same way that European, Middle-Eastern, and Asian cultures did over so many centuries? That loss is, as Mann himself says, a tragedy on a scale that is probably unequaled in history.
I mean, at least we still have the Mayan calendar, though! Happy investiture of Bolon Yakte' K'uh next year, guys! I hope a meteorite doesn't kill us!
(Yes, that prophecy thing is also nonsense.)