Brain Pickings

1493: An Uncommon History of How Columbus Changed the World

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What events from half a millennium ago can teach us about the globalization debate today.

In 2005, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann came to be regarded as the most ambitious and sweeping look at pre-Columbus North and South America ever published. This month, Mann is back with 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created — a fascinating look at one of the lesser-known, lesser-considered aspects of what happened when Columbus and his crew set foot on American soil: the environmental upheaval that began as they brought plants, animals and diseases that forever changed the local biosphere, both in America and in Europe once the explorers returned to the Old World. Known as The Columbian Exchange, this process is considered the most important ecological event since the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the paradoxes at its heart echo today’s polarized views of globalization as either a great cross-pollinator or a great contaminator of cultures.

From the outset globalization brought enormous economic gains and ecological and social tumult that threatened to offset those gains. It is true that our times are different from the past. Our ancestors did not have the Internet, air travel, genetically modified crops, or computerized international stock exchanges. Still, reading the accounts of the creation of the world market one cannot help hearing echoes — some muted, some thunderously loud — of the disputes now on the television news. Events four centuries ago set a template for events we are living through today.”

Mann illustrates the fascinating interplay of organisms within ecological systems and the intricate yet powerful ways in which it impacts human civilization. For instance, when the Spaniards brought plantains to South America, they also brought the tiny scaling insects that live in their roots, which turned out to be delicious new food for the local fire ants. This led to a plague-sized explosion in fire ant population, which forced the terrified Spaniards to live on the roofs of their ant-infested houses and eventually drove them off the islands.

The most striking impact of The Columbian Exchange, however, comes from epidemiology. Because pre-Columbus America had no domesticated animals, it also had no animal-borne diseases. But when the Europeans came over, they brought with them enough disease to wipe out between two thirds and 90% of people in the Americas over the next 150 years — the worst demographic catastrophe in history by a long stretch. While early diaries mentioned these epidemics in describing life in the 1500s and 1600, it wasn’t until the 1960s that epidemiologists and historians realized the true scale of the death toll in the decades following Columbus’s arrival.

NPR’s Fresh Air has an excellent interview with Mann.

From how tobacco became the world’s first global commodity to how forests were transformed by a new earthworm, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created will change the way you look at ecology, economy and epidemiology, and radically shift how you think about “local” and “global.”

Images via Wikimedia Commons

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