I just breezed through 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Knopf, 2005). The author is Charles C. Mann, a journalist, but he's done his homework in trying to synthesize the present state of science regarding the origin and history of pre-Columbian America. Bottom line: the simplified textbook version that most people got in school is now largely superceded by new developments, but there is so much dispute at the moment regarding alternative theories that there is no definitive consensus theory to replace it. I'll comment on the book for a few paragraphs, then come back to the Mo app at the end.
First, the primary thrust of the book is to emphasize how vibrant and successful cultures and states were in pre-Columbian America. Until about thirty years ago, the consensus view, still afflicted with latent if scientific ethnocentrism, was entirely different. From the very beginning, the narrative held that the Americas were populated by tribes who lived in villages that were ruled by chiefs; they were discovered, conquered, and exploited by nations who lived in cities ruled by kings. The vocabulary betrays the perspective. The problem is that the biggest American "villages" were as big or bigger than the biggest European "cities" at the time of discovery. American languages and cultures were as developed; American agriculture employed different crops but supported substantial populations. Even early intellectuals who saw positive things about the locals created a "noble savage" legend that was as ill-founded as the dominant "ignorant savage" view. The only institution that viewed the Indians as autonomous human beings who should be treated as such was the Catholic Church, a point that seems entirely lost on most commentators today.
Second, Mann makes the novel point that there was little "culture shock" to the Americans from coming into contact with strange visitors from a different neighborhood. The whole Quetzalcoatl story he dismisses as a late fabrication:
[Montezuma], according to many scholarly texts, believed that Cortes was the god-hero Quetzalcoatl returning home, in fulfillment of a prophecy. ... But the anthropologist Matthew Restall has noted that none of the conquistadors' writings mention this supposed apotheosis, not even Cortes' lengthy memos to the Spanish king, which go into detail about every other wonderful thing he did. Instead, the Quetzalcoatl story first appears decades later.
To the the locals, the Spanish were just powerful people from a new but unfamiliar area — there was no initial philosophical challenge to the American worldview when the Europeans showed up. Europeans, on the other hand, were thoroughly befuddled by the Indians, who weren't supposed to be there. There was Noah and the flood and post-flood resettlement ... so where did these millions of Indians populating the Americas come from? How did they get there? It really was a puzzle. The idea that the Native Americans were indigenous (i.e., actually native to America) was not even on their Eurobiblical mental map. The ancestors of the Indians must have either sailed there or walked. Big debate over who those ancestors were — Phoenicians, Basques, Chinese, Romans — but there was no doubt they must fit within the Eurobiblical narrative. The leading theory was that they were the Lost Tribes of Israel, meaning the Northern Tribes that were hauled off around 722 BC, not the Southern Tribes that lasted until being overwhelmed by the Babylonians around 598 BC (they weren't lost).
Third, one feature of the book that I haven't seen emphasized in other books on the subject is the degree to which it is now, only recently, realized the extent to which the Indians re-engineered their environment, sometimes for miles and miles around their settlements. They weren't passive hunter-gatherers; their agriculture massively altered the surrounding landscape. This is evident from aerial photos (seen in the book). It's similar to what Polynesians did, sometimes turning entire islands into extensive coconut and breadfruit plantations.
I'll stop there. If this stuff interests you, go find a copy of this easily navigated book. It covers Indian origins, too, reviewing the linguistic, mitochondrial DNA, and other evidence pointing to Eurasian origins. The newest evidence is increasingly supporting pre-Clovis immigrants, pushing the first arrival date well beyond the long-accepted date of roughly 12,000 BC. I guess I have to go reread Thomas Murphy's article in American Apocrypha now, make sure he's shooting straight. [Note: an early version of Murhpy's article is available online here.]
And the Mo app? No Nephites. That's not news, but it's interesting to reflect that every artifact Joseph came across he confidently proclaimed to be Nephite/Lamanite. In the early 20th century, B. H. Roberts mined the scholarship of his day looking for confirmation of the Continental Hypothesis, expecting to find it. But now, the ascendency of the Limited Geography Hypothesis leads orthodox LDS scholars to almost expect no evidence of Nephites in the natural record (the real-world evidence scholars base their theories on), then to treat that absence of evidence as confirming their view of LGH Nephites. Strange. Then there are the local leaders, still laboring under the Continental Hypothesis, who view someone like Murphy as some modern-day Korihor because he has a graduate degree in anthropology and writes from that perspective. Don't these people read books? Anyway, keep 1491 in mind for your Christmas list. Love that subtitle.