When Worlds Collide


The Conquest of Tenochtitlan  And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico [i.e. Tenochtitlán], we were astounded. These great towns and cues [i.e., temples] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein. It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before. . . .I say again that I stood looking at it, and thought that no land like it would ever be discovered in the whole world…. But today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing. True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492-1580)

1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Audible recorded edition, original publication 2006 by Charles C. Mann

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Audible recorded edition, original publication 2011 by Charles C. Mann

These two books form a pair of inquiries, first into what the New World, comprising the nearctic and neotropical biogeographic realms, were like prior to the coming of Europeans (and Africans) after 1492 and second into what the resulting “Columbian exchange,” wrought in biological and cultural terms across the world.

Mann collected the latest scientific and historical evidence from a wide range of first hand sources, mostly working archaeologists, anthropologists, demographers, historians and others. He traveled through North, Central and South America to see the discoveries that are changing our notions about the human population of the Americas from the end of the ice ages to the present. He revisited the first hand accounts of the earliest European explorers, who often reported densities of human settlements that were disbelieved by those who followed just a couple of generations later, after European diseases had depopulated vast regions. He recounts the epic battles of the scientific past: how new discoveries were often flatly denied by the powerful authorities of the time, even in the face of hard evidence. Some academic scientists took all the credit for discoveries which were originally made by amateurs and lay people. The history of Native Americans has been contested ground for centuries, and now the Native Americans themselves are becoming more deeply involved, not always, as far as I can see, on the side of the best science. This may partly be blamed on postmodern and post colonialist concepts of truth, but a lot is simply the difficulty of making sense of the evidence. Betty Meggars, author of Amazonia: Nature and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, which I greatly admired as a young ecologist, is an example of someone who, at the time 1491 was published, opposed the idea that humans could have lived in the Amazon Basin in large settlements with permanent, as opposed to shifting agriculture. I think her basic ideas about ecological limitations are sound, but it seems as if she was refusing to see that the ecology of the Amazon forest was more complex than was understood in the 1970s. Since those early days of the save the rainforest movement, we have learned a lot about the Amazon and other forests that contradicts ideas about primeval forests, undisturbed for centuries, being what Europeans encountered as they ventured to Africa, Asia and the Americas. Many environmentalists are reluctant to accept these findings, because they rightly fear that they could be used to justify unregulated exploitation by destructive modern methods. Still, I see no use in denying hard won understanding. I, for one, accept the idea that across the earth, humans have played a much greater role in  shaping the landscape and for a longer time than we previously believed. Mann’s detailed accounts of the latest understanding of life of Native Americans prior to 1492 point to just how much was lost in the collision between the peoples, plants, animals and diseases of two formerly isolated realms.

Mann’s second book, 1493, takes up the story to try to see how this fatal, but pregnant, collision transformed the rest of the planet. Central to this was trade: the rapid exchange of all sorts of goods, including new crops, new livestock and unfortunately, new pests and diseases across the globe. The trade was facilitated by the new sea routes opened up, especially the Spanish route from Mexico to Manila, made possible by the vast deposits of silver and gold in the new Spanish colonies. Chinese silks and porcelin flowed east to New Spain and then Europe, while silver, especially, flowed to China. Along with the coin went crops like maize, chili pepper and sweet potato, whose conquest of Asian diets Mann details. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, sugar, tobacco and later, cotton began to flow to Europe, made possible by the labor of enslaved Africans. Transplanted Europeans, their crops and their livestock began to replace the native populations from Argentina to Quebec, remaking the landscape in a melded version of the old and new. Escaped slaves formed a crucial part of the ecological and cultural heritage of areas like Brazil and the southeastern US (see my post on Exiles of Florida).

All this history and ecology, so different from what I learned in school, and even as a graduate student forty years ago, is a reminder that very little of our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit can be taken as fixed and certain. Perhaps my favorite bit of revisionist history in either book is the notion that the famous passenger pigeon did not darken the skies in vast flocks containing billions of birds back before Columbus. Instead, it rocketed to huge numbers when the demographic collapse of Native Americans led to a regrowth of deciduous forest across formerly densely inhabited landscapes in eastern North America. How do we know they were not so abundant back in the day? Because passenger pigeon bones are scarce in archeological sites from pre-Columbian times, despite the historical fact that the birds were good to eat and easy to obtain in the early 19th century.

There were surely be further developments in this fascinating field of inquiry, but for now, these two books are not a bad place to begin.

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