Tuesday, December 4, 2012

1493 – uncovering the new world Columbus created - A review

Charles C. Mann’s book argues that globalized relations started with Columbus’ mistake of when he discovered a very old world.

The so-called educational system in the United States exposes students to a mythology course disguised as “American History.”  James Loewen is one of the historians who uncovered many of the routine falsifications in these courses with his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. 

One of the myths contained in these courses is that Native Americans were not civilized and they needed exposure to the refinements of European civilization in order to escape the darkness.  This myth was blasted away in the book American Indian Contributions to the World – 15,000 years of inventions and innovations by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield.

Charles C. Mann views this history from a different perspective.  His book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus looks at some of the scientific discoveries that have demolished many of the ideas we have associated with Native Americans.

Where did the forests come from?

While many of us assume that the forests of the Western Hemisphere were virgin at the time Europeans came to this part of the world, Mann has a different point of view.  He argues that Native Americans planted many of the trees in these forests.

Today, farmers would never plant oak trees in order to harvest crops of edible acorns.  However, to the Native American, acorns were an edible food and oak trees are useful in many ways that benefitted their lifestyle.

In his book, 1493 – uncovering the new world Columbus created, Mann looked at how the world changed because of European and Asian contact with the Western Hemisphere.  One of his observations was how Native Americans cleared large sections of forestland in order to plant crops.

The consequences of Columbus’ mistake

Christopher Columbus’ goal was to find a shipping rout to China by sailing west.  Despite what we have been taught in school, Columbus did not discover that the world was round.  To the contrary, Mann argues that scientists had known the world was round centuries before Columbus.  In fact, Columbus made an erroneous calculation that contradicted the known science of his day.  He argued that the world was much smaller than it is and he proved himself wrong.

However, the Spanish did find large quantities of silver in the Americas.  The Chinese wanted this silver because they did not have a stable currency.  Mann argued that between 30 and 50 percent of the silver of the Americas went to China.

The Chinese were eager to trade silk and many other commodities for silver.  The Europeans were used to garments made of wool and did not develop cotton garments for many years.  As we might imagine, there was a strong market for silk made in China.  The Chinese emperor ordered peasants to plant mulberry trees.  These trees provided food for the silkworms.       

The world discovers new foods from the Americas

However, gold and silver were not the most valuable commodities that came from the Americas.  Corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, as well as chili peppers were all crops that had their origins in the Americas.

In Europe and Asia there was a population increase because of the introduction of these crops.  Because potatoes were easier to farm than grains, farmers had more time to develop handicrafts.

In China the introduction of these crops meant that food could be grown in mountainous regions.  This meant that farmers cut down forests to make room for food crops which allowed the population to increase.  However, when China lost many of its mountainous forests, this increased flooding which was one reason for famines.

Off the coast of Ecuador are the Galapagos Islands.  On these islands there are huge amounts of bird droppings that contain nitrogen.  Farmers used these bird droppings to fertilize the soil and many crops did not need to be rotated as a result.

However, mixed in with the bird droppings was a fungus that destroyed potato crops all over the world.  The potato originated in the Andean Mountains.  The native people of that region used different methods to farm potatoes.  They planted numerous varieties of potatoes and created a border around each field.  Because the native people used these methods, they never had a potato blight the rest of the world suffered from.


According to Charles Mann there are three commodities that are indispensable to the industrialized world.  These are: fossil fuels, steel, and rubber.  Rubber originated in Brazil.  However, rubber production in Brazil did not flourish because there are natural obstacles that make large-scale production impossible. 

Today, rubber continues to be necessary for industrialization.  Synthetic rubber doesn’t have the desired qualities of the natural variety.  Most rubber today is grown in Southeast Asia.  However, there is a strong possibility that the natural predators of Brazil will find their way to Southeast Asia.  This has the potential to cause a worldwide catastrophe.


While most of us assume that mosquitoes are common to the world, Mann argues that they came from Africa.  When slaves came to the Americas, they came with mosquitoes.  While the African salves had a resistance to diseases spread by mosquitoes, the rest of the world didn’t. 

This meant that Europeans who came to the Americas oftentimes experienced diseases spread by mosquitoes for about three years.  The economist Adam Smith argued that it was cheaper to hire indentured servants from Europe than to import slaves from Africa.  Smith did not account for the time Europeans became ill because of diseases like malaria and yellow fever.  When slave owners accounted for these diseases, they found it cheaper to use the horrendous institution of chattel slavery.  In other words, Black people were kidnapped and shipped to the Americas because they were physically superior to Europeans.   


The theme of Charles Mann’s book 1493 is how globalization is not a recent phenomenon.  This started with the integration of the Americas with the rest of the world.

Today the capitalist system has invented imperialist property relations.  This means that about 40% of the world’s population lives on two dollars per day or less.  This also means that about 250 families have more wealth than half of the world’s population.

While Mann’s book gives us a lot of information about our history, he fails to even mention the biggest problem we have been facing for the past hundred years.  This problem is that the capitalist world is dedicated to creating profits for a tiny minority of the population.  When we begin to deal with this problem, then all the other problems Mann writes about can be resolved.                    

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