In his 1491 Charles Mann took an exhaustive look at the world that greeted Columbus when he landed on Hispaniola in that year. Mann’s thesis holds that the land and people Columbus found were nothing like the land and people described to us in our conventional tales and texts, and he compiles an impressive catalogue of recent scholarly work that seems to dispel many of the myths that have come down to us about who made and inhabited the Americas as well as about the Europeans who “discovered” them. In 1493, Mann attempts the same task concerning the post-Columbian globe.
The effort is just as impressive as 1491, but the result not as successful. Though full of incredible revelations about how humans and their animals and plants spread from continent to tribe to civilization once civilizations came in contact with one another, it doesn’t achieve the same focus as 1491, sometimes staggers and reels under the immense weight of its collection of stories and facts. Several passages repeat themselves without explanation, so that I thought I’d lost my place and gone backwards a few chapters. Where 1491 builds a structure around the research stories of a few key archeologists and anthropologists, 1491 has no such organizing principle and wanders all over the historical landscape. For all that, though, it’s well worth reading.
Take the story of potatoes and guano. It’s always been interesting to know that potatoes came from South America. It’s fascinating to find that they changed history. The introduction of potatoes and sweet potatoes to Europe and Asia changed the nutrition of the general population (the only thing you need to survive outside of potatoes is vitamins A&D, which you can get from milk). Potatoes grow in many soils and climates, and they store well. Thus poor sharecroppers could suddenly eat and reproduce with lower mortality rates, and both the population and its quality of life rose dramatically across the continent. Then came the guano.
The guano of the islands off the pacific side of South America–Peru and Chile in particular–was so rich it became the first super fertilizer. Wars were fought over it. Ships sailed back and forth to Europe filled with it. It was the miracle-gro of the day. Then the law of unintended consequences took over. There was a fungus in the guano. Not a big deal for the South Americans who had been using it for centuries. However, the South Americans grew hundreds of varieties of potatoes, and the genetic mix made them pretty much immune to the guano-fungus. Not so the Europeans, who grew one or two varieties, which became incredibly susceptible. Thus, good-bye potatoes, hello potato famine. The scourge was so deadly in Ireland that the island still has a lower population today than it did in 1840.
There are similar stories about slavery, about the mix of races in the Americas after Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro and the modern consequences. So, from potatoes to humans, the story of post-columbian civilization has been a story of mixing of plants, beasts, and humans in new combinations that no one anticipated and which we still don’t fully understand. The political, cultural, agricultural, and individual human conditions under which we live would be far, far different had there been no 1492, and the how we as people, nations, races came to be after that is far different than the assumptions we’ve made for a long time. DNA advances are responsible for many of these discoveries. It’s possible, for example, to trace the European potato back to a particular district in the Andes even after all these centuries. However, the questions multiply far faster than the answers. I’m sure there’s more to come, but I thank Charles Mann for getting the conversation started.