BOOKS | In his latest book, 1493, Charles Mann connects the disconnected stories of history, bringing together the work of a whole generation of historians, including anthropologists, archeologists and ecologists. Mann wants us to rethink how we look at the world and history – and see links where we saw none before.
Humorous and intelligent – with interests beyond mere history – Charles Mann manages to weave together biology, culture and humanity in his latest book, 1493, as he analyzes the movement of life to and from the Americas. This “Columbian Exchange” is the driving force behind much of the world’s history and revolutions, from the rise of Europe to today’s cultural clashes.
Christopher Columbus and the Europeans ships that followed his voyages to the New World arrived in the company of a menagerie of animals, plants, insects, and microbes of every sort. The returning ships also brought back native items to Europe and Asia. Some the humans were aware of, others they weren’t.
These accidents of history had an enormous impact – more than the explorers themselves. “It was a tremendous ecological convulsion,” said Mann at a recent lecture at the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam. “The greatest event in the history of life since the death of dinosaurs.”
One aspect the book covers is the spread of disease, which wiped out two-thirds to ninety percent of the 40-60 million natives living in the Americas. The great diseases like smallpox, measles and influenza didn’t exist in the Americas because people didn’t have domesticated animals. The devastation was so immense; it was as if all the deaths that these diseases had caused over a millennium were compressed in 150 years. The result was the worst demographic disaster in history.
The change in the land use that resulted from all these deaths caused a dramatic drop in charcoal and CO2 in the climate, due to fewer open fires. Today many scientists believe this lead to Europe’s Little Ice Age, which caused longer winters and shorter summers between 1500-1800.
Mann also discusses how Europe and the world were radically changed by the introduction of the potato. Prior to this, Europe suffered major famine every decade, killing hundreds of thousands. Suddenly there was 14% more food and famine rates dropped to practically zero, which allowed for stable governments, growth of populations, world domination… and the introduction of ancient Andean farming techniques still in use today.
As a writer, Mann is fed by many other scholars. Often he just looks at the footnotes in books, and following their path to the Internet to find all kinds of information (including the fact that plagiarism is more rampant than he’d expected). “This is the advantage of being disorganized,” he said. “I am willing to go down unproductive rat holes for quite some time before I find something good.” Then, when he feels like he is not learning enough new things, he starts formulating his ideas and talking to people.
His goal is to connect the disconnected stories of history, as Mann tries to bring together the work of a whole generation of historians, including anthropologists, archeologists and ecologists.
His results are intentional. Mann wants us to rethink how we look at the world and history – and see connections where we saw none before. It’s also important to remember that our society is not the first to deal with financial collapse and cultural clashes. Globalization started 400 years ago, when an Italian man secured financing from a Spanish queen to sail wide-open seas into worlds unknown.
Author of this article: Claire Taylor
Image: First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World: At San Salvador, W.I., Oct. 12th 1492, from Library of Congress