Friday Reviews: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created

Charles C. Mann

In his first book on the impact of Columbus’s voyages, 1491, Charles Mann described how our commonly held assumptions about the Americas before Columbus are fundamentally wrong. The Americas, he showed, was a thriving continent of about 200 million people. While the Black Death is often cited as the greatest biological disaster in human history, it actually was the fifty-year rampage of small pox through the native populations in the Americas, an event that sounds like Stephen King’s The Stand.

In 1493, Mann shows how the meeting of east and west inaugurated a new epoch in the history of the planet, the homogenicine. Many foods that we think of as being Asian or American or European actually originated somewhere else. For instance, China is the largest producer of sweet potatoes. The Chinese never saw a sweet potato before 1500 nor did Europe know what maize (You call it corn) was until then.

Mann does not shirk from the atrocities committed by Europeans and Chinese in the early days of globalization. He also shows how metal-based money, based on American silver, ultimately wrecked the economies and political clout of Spain and China, then the two most powerful nations on Earth. But he also shows how the mixing of Spaniards and Portuguese with natives in America, Africans brought as chattel slaves, and Asians looking to do business in Mexico created an entirely new race.

At the same time, the Golden Age of Discovery likely saved many populations in Europe and Asia from ruin and ultimately may have ended what is known as The Little Ice Age. Had small pox not decimated the Americas ahead of colonization, the tribes living in the New World might have benefited from the advent of European crops. For good or ill, Mann posits, the world we now live in would not be possible without what he dubs “the Columbian exchange.”