This book summarizes recent scholarship that runs counter to several common misconceptions about indigenous Americans:

  • Instead of one wave of migration over the Bering Strait, these peoples likely arrived in multiple waves.
  • These were not static societies. Their cultural contributions, such as the cultivation of maize, show a growing body of knowledge about the natural world.
  • America’s earliest settlers did not live in a romantic natural utopia. Rather, their efforts had massive and long-lasting impact on the environment, such as at Cahokia.

In addition to this history of the Americas, Mann also offers a welcome contribution to the history of science, explaining why earlier scholars were wrong on the above points. One reason is that travel to certain parts of South America was quite difficult, both practically and politically, until relatively recently. Another is that scholars on the left idealized societies with minimal environmental impacts, while those on the right were satisfied with descriptions of these early peoples as quite primitive.

As an aside, the discussion of Incan “verical archipelangos” makes a nice accompaniment to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed