Back in College I was privileged to read the work by anthropologist, and hsitorian Alfred W. Crosby called “The Columbian Exchange”. At the time, it was a relatively groundbreaking examination of the biological consequences of 1492, from the European population boom brought on by the potato to the demise of population in the Americas brought on by Smallpox. This book drastically changed my perspective on the scope of history, demographics, and biology. So much of who we are is based on these accidents of demographic biology, and less on our ideologies and the machinations of so called “great men”. Today, I finished an incredible update and expansion on Crosby’s work called 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by #charlesmann after previously reading his work 1491.
1491 dealt with the recent scholarship of what the Americas were like before the European/African arrivals and what we can learn from those peoples. The biggest takeaway was probably that there were vast numbers of humans living here in sustainable urban and agrarian economies. More people than in Europe in fact, and these cultures had lasted for literally thousands of years. Their agricultural yields were moderately lower than ours, but they attained them without crop rotation, pesticide, or plantation economies. They also learned how to turn swamps and jungles into planned, food-bearing orchard ecosystems. These are skills we are just starting to catch up to today with the rebirth of organic micro-agriculture.
1493 dealt with the recent scholarship about the Columbian Exchange itself. Among the fascinating insights was the spread of Malaria and how it led to exactly where American slavery thrived, and where it was banned. Later, the spread of Malaria may have hamstrung the Union army so drastically that it took them 5 years to win a war despite vastly superior resources. This forced Lincoln to not only free the slaves, but to enlist black soldiers, many of whom had been “seasoned” by overcoming childhood malaria. He also discusses the impact of yellow fever in the Americas, how the silver/silk trade brought about the demise of a Chinese dynasty AND a Spanish one. How Indians, Africans, and Europeans mixed in a variety of ways to create our unique American polyglot. How runaway slaves joined with indigenous Americans to create “Maroon” communities that still exist today. How Mexico City and Manilla were the world’s first truly international cities. But to me, most interesting was the sugar trade, which necessitated plantations and not just the slaves that worked them, but the development of pesticides that sustained them. Potato blight wiped out a third of Europe’s food source in a 40 year span and the fact that there is yet no cure for this pest (and many others) was a sobering revelation.
This is a must read for anyone who wants to understand where globalization came from, what its effects have been, and what they mean for our future. These books also make one see the Americas as a very different place, not one of countries, but one of mixed tribes from all over the world who (for better or worse) brought their unique foods, pests, diseases, and ideologies with them. Mann manages to make these relatively heavy topics fun to explore because he himself is an explorer. He visited all of the places he describes and his personal stories break up the depth of the book so that you feel like you are simply on the road with him.
I strongly recommend these books to anyone interested in history, anthropology, farming, race relations or a greater understanding of their world. You can get them both in paperback for $26http://www.amazon.com/Charles-C.-Mann/e/B000AP9N94/