1491: The Old New World

All of this is speculative, to say the least, and may well be wrong. Next year geologists may decide the ice-free corridor was passable, after all. Or more hunting sites could turn up. What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the “New World.” Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.

In college I read a one-volume history of the world by the distinguished historian William H. McNeill. Called, simply enough, A World History, and published in 1967, it began with what McNeill and most other historians then considered the four wellsprings of human civilization: the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, in modern Iraq, home of Sumer, oldest of all complex polities; the Nile Delta, in Egypt; the Indus Valley, in Pakistan; and, in east central China, the valley of the Huang He, more familiar to Westerners as the Yellow River. If McNeill were writing A World History today, discoveries like those at Huaricanga would force him to add two more areas to the book. The first and better known is Mesoamerica, where half a dozen societies, the Olmec first among them, rose in the centuries before Christ. The second is the Peruvian littoral, home of a much older civilization that has come to light only in the twenty-first century.

Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astronomy, and mathematics, including the zero.

A few decades ago, many researchers would have included jump-starting Andean civilization on the honor roll of Mesoamerican accomplishments. The Olmec, it was proposed, visited Peru, and the locals, dutiful students, copied their example. Today we know that technologically sophisticated societies arose in Peru first—the starting date, to archaeologists’ surprise, keeps getting pushed back. Between 3200 and 2500 B.C., large-scale public buildings, the temple at Huaricanga among them, rose up in at least seven settlements on the Peruvian coast—an extraordinary efflorescence for that time and place. When the people of the Norte Chico were building these cities, there was only one other urban complex on earth: Sumer.

—Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

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4 comments on “1491: The Old New World

  1. Brian Joseph says:

    Hi Sylvia – Something that your quote from the book illustrates is the amazing number of foods that we owe to the inhabitants of Mesoamerica. I recall Mann touches upon the development of some of these crops .Have you read Jared Diamond’s Guns, germs and Steel? In it Diamond describes in greater detail the incredible processes that the people of Mesoamerica likely undertook to create Maize and the other crops.

    • Sylvia says:

      Hi Brian! I haven’t read Guns, Germs and Steel but I did see a TV production of it, though the details are hazy now. It does seem amazing that they thought a scruffy grass like teosinte was worth cultivating, but I supposed it was the same with wheat, barley, and the rest. I wonder if they tried with other plants as well and didn’t get very far? And I wonder why “old world” grains did not get as large as maize?

      One very interesting section in the book is about how potatoes essentially took Europe from a state of recurring famines to food security (potato blight notwithstanding) which allowed things like the Enlightment and Industrial Revolution to happen. Food is fuel, and Western Hemisphere foods have fuelled the whole world for 500 years and counting!

      • Brian Joseph says:

        If I recall Diamond’s book really goes into detail as to why some plants were domesticated over others. I think that he argues that some of the plants that were easier to cultivate and led to modern day wheat and others were readily available in Eurasia and not so in the America’s. He attributes the fact that it was such a difficult and long road for teosinte to be engineered into maize, to one of the reasons why the American cultures were technologically less advanced the Europeans by the fifteenth century.

      • Sylvia says:

        Ah, that’s very interesting. I’ve also read in this book and others that one significant drawback was the lack of draught animals in the Americas. Without that power to plow fields and haul materials such as iron ore around they were more or less stuck in the neolithic age.

        One thing I found very interesting in the book is that the lack of domesticated animals (other than the llama and guinea pig) and their associated diseases also meant their immune systems were relatively weak, hence their susceptibility to Eurasian diseases. It also meant that they didn’t have diseases to pass on to Europeans, which left the Old World unscathed by contact. Imagine if the whole world had been struck by epidemics at the same time? Ah well, we can play the what if game forever but what happened happened!

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