The best books on ancient North America

Who am I?

My twin passions are science and history, and I try to have it both ways by writing a mix of alternate history and hard SF. I grew up in Yorkshire, England, enjoyed lots of family vacations at Hadrian’s Wall and other Roman-rich areas, and acquired degrees in Physics and Astrophysics from Oxford, but I’ve lived in the US for over half my life and now work for NASA (studying black holes, neutron stars, and other bizarre celestial objects). My novella of a Roman invasion of ancient America, A Clash of Eagles, won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History and formed the starting point for my Clash of Eagles trilogy from Del Rey, and Hot Moon, my alternate-Apollo thriller set entirely on and around the Moon, will be published by CAEZIK SF & Fantasy in 2022.


I wrote...

Clash of Eagles: The Clash of Eagles Trilogy Book I

By Alan Smale,

Book cover of Clash of Eagles: The Clash of Eagles Trilogy Book I

What is my book about?

The Roman Empire has survived in its classical form until 1218 AD, and has now discovered North America. Transported by Norse longboats, a Roman legion crosses the great ocean to Nova Hesperia, enters an endless wilderness, and faces a cataclysmic clash of worlds, cultures, and warriors.

Gaius Marcellinus and his 33rd Legion expect easy victories over the native inhabitants, but on the shores of the Mississippi River the Legion clashes with a unique civilization armed with weapons and strategies no Roman has imagined. As Marcellinus learns more about the Mississippian mound-building culture he can’t help but be drawn into their society, forming an uneasy friendship with the people of the city-state of Cahokia. But threats Roman and Native assail them, and Marcellinus will struggle to keep the peace while the rest of the continent surges toward certain conflict.

The books I picked & why

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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

By Charles C. Mann,

Book cover of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Why this book?

1491 changed my life and my understanding of the early Americas, and it’s the touchstone text for anyone fascinated by the richness and complexity of the continent prior to the arrival of European invaders, exploiters, and settlers. It spends due time on the Inca, Aztec, and Maya civilizations, but where the book really shone for me was in its description of the perhaps less widely known peoples of North America, and especially the magnificent Mississippian culture of Cahokia, a mound-building city of 20,000 people located where St. Louis is now, and the other cities and towns along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Even before I finished 1491 I knew I needed to learn more about Cahokia, and likely feature the city and its people in fiction.


Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians

By Timothy Pauketat,

Book cover of Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians

Why this book?

A tough choice, this one. I read so many books about Cahokia. But Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians goes into sufficiently deep and absorbing detail on the Cahokian site – which you should go see for yourself if you get the chance, at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Collinsville, Illinois – for you to appreciate the true magnitude of the Mississippian achievement. And it has lots of photos, illustrations, and maps. For a quicker introductory read and perhaps more evocative descriptions, Pauketat’s Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi might be for you. Both books, written by an archeologist of more than usual depth, perceptiveness, and descriptive skill, invoke a bygone North American city of awesome power.


House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest

By Craig Childs,

Book cover of House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest

Why this book?

Meanwhile, in the American Southwest we have the Great House civilization of the “Anasazi” -- more correctly, the Ancestral Puebloan people -- renowned for creating Chaco Canyon and many other great cultural centers. (Chaco and its inhabitants figure strongly in my third book, Eagle and Empire.) Craig Childs’ book makes this area, and its peoples, and the sheer extent of their civilization, come alive. It’s a beautiful and evocative work of archeological detective work and exploration.


A.D. 1250: Ancient Peoples of the Southwest/Includes Indian Travel Guide & Map

By Lawrence W. Cheek,

Book cover of A.D. 1250: Ancient Peoples of the Southwest/Includes Indian Travel Guide & Map

Why this book?

I thought of maybe featuring an encyclopedia of Native American cultures for my fourth pick, but no: this is basically a big glossy coffee table book, but it provides fascinating descriptions of the many and varied prehistoric Southwestern cultures: the Anasazi, the Sinagua, and Mogollon, the Hohokam, and many other peoples and sites from Utah and Colorado down through Arizona and New Mexico into modern-day Mexico. Cities built into cliffs. Sophisticated irrigation systems helped them survive in the desertlands. Just awesome.


The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples

By Tim Flannery,

Book cover of The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples

Why this book?

Finally, expanding outward even further in space and time and going far beyond my Clash of Eagles series source material, Tim Flannery’s book covers the entire geological, ecological, and (yes) human history of the North American continent, from its formative years 65 million years ago through to its “discovery” by Europeans, and the effects those colonizing influences had on the peoples, flora, and fauna. I learned so much from this book that I still think about it almost daily, and especially so when I travel around today’s US in all its depth, breadth, and glory.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Ancestral Puebloans, North America, and ecology?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Ancestral Puebloans, North America, and ecology.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, Ill Wind, and The Moundbuilders: Ancient Societies of Eastern North America if you like this list.