Sunday, November 6, 2011

1491 and 1493 -- The World Before and After Columbus

Does anyone remember Paul Harvey?  He used to do radio pieces called "The Rest of the Story"  that revealed the hidden parts of things most of us think we know about.  If you like that kind of back story, these two books are a great find.  Together, they tell the rest of the story about the Americas before and after Columbus's trips to the Americas.

In 1491, Charles C. Mann reviews the Americas before European contact.  Whatever you may have learned in school, whatever you may have thought you knew, Mann presents a vastly different picture.  For one thing, the populations of native Americans was probably much larger.  Vast sophisticated civilizations existed.  The land we think of as pristine was carefully and systematically managed by the people who occupied it.  The Amazon apparently shows signs of terra forming.

So dramatic -- and devastating -- was the initial contact between Europeans and native people, that by the time the first Europeans encountered some native populations, they were encountering only the surviving remnants of once thriving cultures already seriously diminished by diseases introduced by the Europeans and spread ahead of their advance. 

In 1493, explores what researchers call "the Colombian Exchange" which may well be the most momentous ecological revolution since the passing of the dinosaurs.  Colonists spread around the world and with them moved hundreds of different animals and plants including earthworms, fungi, mosquitoes, dandelions, rats, pigs, and horses.

Most of the foods we eat are part of the Colombian Exchange.  The potato famine that brought thousands of Irish immigrants to the United States originated in the Colombian Exchange.  Silver mined in South America brought economic crisis to China and led to the first paper money -- and the first abuses of it.

The global links, the environmental changes, emergence of interdependent economies, immigration and political issues, and hundreds of other factors emerging from the Colombian Exchange have shaped our world in ways seldom explored.  This book begins that exploration and may well change how you look at important issues of our day forever.