A few months back I checked out a book about ancient America; written by an academic historian, I found it pretty heavy going, but interesting. Also available at the library of the University Near Here was this book, 1491, obviously covering some of the same ground. And its author, Charles C. Mann, is more of a journalist than an academic. (He also has a couple writing credits at IMDB, one for an episode of Law & Order.) 1491 won the 2006 NAS Keck Award for best book of the year.
So, yeah, it's good. If you have enough of an interest to read one book about pre-Columbus Americas, this is probably it. Mann colors his text with stories about his own explorations to archeological digs all over both North and South America. He also, when he feels like it, contradicts the book's title by slipping in more recent history. He's especially good at discussing some of the controversies and new discoveries in the field. As you might not expect, there's a lot of controversy, and the disagreements between academics can be intense and bitter. Pass the popcorn.
I am not even a dilettante in matters historical; I'm mainly looking for good stories and provocative ideas. Mann provides a lot. His overall themes: there were a lot more Indians in the Americas than was thought even a few decades ago. Their societies were unexpectedly complex. Far from the caricature of the Indian in harmony with nature, they engaged in environment-altering practices, transforming both the landscape and its flora and fauna.
Some examples: Mann investigates the origin of maize; where and when the original Indians came from; the rise and fall of Cahokia, a huge city just east of current-day St. Louis; how the Haudenosaunee traditions of individual freedom and limited government influenced the European colonists.
But it wasn't all fascinating. The story, set in the Yucatan of 682 AD, of how B'alaj Chan K'awiil disguised himself as the god Ik' Sip to overthrow and kill his brother, Nuun Ujol Chaak, only to be the target of a coup… I pretty much forgot that immediately upon reading. As another quibble, Mann quotes the leftist loon Ward Churchill in support of a couple points; I wouldn't trust Churchill to get the color of the sky right, if it conflicted with his rabid anti-American theology.