Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Never enough history

I thoroughly enjoyed Charles Mann's 1491 when it came out several years ago.  Everything that I thought I knew about the pre-Columbian Americas (not much) was challenged.

I just finished Mann's 1493 and it is (in my view) even better. 

First there was Pangaea and then the continents split; their flora and fauna evolved in very different ways for a few hundred million years.  With the Columbian Exchange, all of these could interact once more.  This was sometimes for the good (all those tomatoes from Mexico in Italy, all those potatoes from Peru in from China) and many times for the worse (silver mining, yellow fever, malaria, etc.).

The encounters across continents and cultures were not simply involving Europeans and Indians (Mann uses that descriptor and has an appendix explaining his use of terms), but reached to all the continents.  These are amazing and complex stories.

Here is one example:
American history is often described in terms of Europeans entering a nearly empty wilderness.  For centuries, though, most of the newcomers were African and the land was not empty, but filled with millions of indigenous people.  Much of the great encounter between the two separate halves of the world thus was less a meeting of Europe and America than a meeting of Africans and Indians - a relationship forged both in the cage of slavery and in the uprisings against it.  Largely conducted out of sight of Europeans, the complex interplay between red and black is a hidden history that researchers are only noe beginning to unravel (p. 331).
I am not a historian nor an anthropologist.  Perhaps this means that I can enjoy Mann all the more.  He does take up several economic themes and as far as I can tell gets them right.

We can never know enough history.  So I am grateful that folks like Mann are there to make it enthralling and great fun.  It is sad that books like his will not make it into a high school curriculum.   Perhaps some lucky home-schooled kids will get to read them.