After reading a great book on the experiences of Lewis and Clark, where the Indian population played a very important role in keeping the expedition alive, I wanted to know more about life in the Americas before Columbus. This book came highly recommended from a list on reddit; perhaps not the most reliable source but this book was terrific and I can't wait to read the follow-up, 1493.
1491 makes three big statements about Native Americans (or Indians, the nomenclature is fraught with peril but these are the names used in the book). First, Indians have been in the Americans much longer than what is usually depicted in older history books. Second, Indians were much more populous than previously thought -- perhaps close in population to Europe around that time and third, that Indians had a very active role in shaping their environment.
These three statements, which point to incredibly rich cultures and civilizations, are based on recent scientific insights. The book does an excellent job in describing what modern scientists think about these issues, and what the consensus is. The author gives descriptions of the political and scientific "battles" that took place in academia over the past hundred years or so.
It's a great book, but the story it describes is a tragedy. The introduction of smallpox and other European diseases had a horrific effect on the Indian civilizations. Over the course of a hundred years, more than 90% of people died, possibly as many as 97%. In the author's words: the Columbus Exchange where goods and ideas transferred between the New and the Old World, resulted in a calamitous death toll. The people in the Americas who died made up as much as 20% of the entire world population.
It's a tragedy, even many generations later. It's also a shame that we know so little about those great civilizations.