The best books on South American history

The Books I Picked & Why

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?

If you want to start your study of South America and the Americas from the beginning (pre-European contact), this book does a great job of painting the big picture while at the same time puncturing the numerous myths that have been built up since 1491 about what the Americas were like prior to Columbus’ arrival. The next best thing to taking a time machine back there and flying over the area yourself.


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Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504

By Laurence Bergreen

Book cover of Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504

Why this book?

If you want to understand how both South America and the New World were “discovered” by Europeans, which had nearly the same effect on Native Americans that a meteor did on the dinosaurs, there’s no better way to understand it than to journey along on Columbus’ four voyages and be there when he and his crew set ashore. Columbus set foot on the northern part of South America on his third voyage, visiting the coast of what is now Venezuela. Bergreen’s book does an admirable job of introducing you to the man whose voyages would ultimately affect millions of people. This is the closest anyone will ever get to being on board as an entirely New World first hove into sight.


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Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent

By Eduardo Galeano

Book cover of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent

Why this book?

A classic book that weaves together the history of how Columbus’ arrival in the Americas set the stage for the mining of the New World by European and other colonial powers--for its gold, silver, cacao, cotton, rubber, and coffee--and for how that impacted the people who lived there. A brilliant synthesis of the many forces that were unleashed by the joining of the Old World and the New.


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Bolivar: American Liberator

By Marie Arana

Book cover of Bolivar: American Liberator

Why this book?

In 1813, a rather obscure Venezuelan colonel began a military campaign that ultimately liberated six countries from Spanish rule, putting an end to Spanish control of much of South America that had begun with Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca Empire nearly three centuries earlier. Arana’s book tells in vivid detail how the revolutionary events unfolded and does an admirable job of bringing to life this talented and charismatic liberator.


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Forgotten Continent: A History of the New Latin America

By Michael Reid

Book cover of Forgotten Continent: A History of the New Latin America

Why this book?

The author spent many years in Brazil and Peru, editing the Americas’ section of The Economist and knows the region well. He does a great job of providing the reader with a broad, contemporary view of modern-day Central and South America, weaving together their many historical threads. If you want an insider’s account of Latin America by someone who thoroughly knows the area, then this is the book for you.


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