Friday, September 23, 2005

Revelations from 1491

Just read the book 1491, a look at the Americas before Columbus came ashore. This was a fantastic book and I highly recommend it. I learned all sorts of things. A lot of the points in the book are uncertain, so maybe only 70% of this book's ideas will still be thought to be true in 25 years. Even so, it is highly informative and makes you rethink a lot of what you learned in grade school.

Here is a list of my favorite mind blowing observations in the book:

1) There were 100 million Americans (in North and South America) in 1491.

This would make America more populated than Europe. It would also make it around 20% of the entire world population of 500 million at that time.

2) There were only 5 million Native Americans were alive in 1600.

95% of their population was lost over 100 years. 95 million of the world population of 500 million died or 20%. That number is mind boggling. It trivializes the current AIDS epidemic in Africa. There was one graph in the book that is the saddest graph I have ever seen in my life. It shows the population of the Americas from 1490-1600 and all of the epidemics that came through (one every 5-10 years or so). The amount of human suffering caused might have been the greatest in all of human history.

As it happened over 100 years it is really not 95 million deaths, but more than that. Or better put their death rate was greatly increased through successive waves of disease.

The disease transmission was almost certain once the two cultures collided, so while Europeans are responsible for it occurring they are not morally responsible for all those deaths. Indians were conquered because of the diseases rather than technological superiority of Europe.

3) Inca and Aztec civilizations in 1491 would rival ones anywhere in the world (Europe, Asia, Africa) in terms of culture and science.

I love this paragraph:
Envision the fertile back and forth between a hundred cultures, the gifts from 4 centuries of intellectual exchange. One can hardly imagine anything more valuable. Think of the fruitful impact on Europe and on its descendants from contacting Asia. Imagine the effect on these places and people from a second Asia.
The loss of human knowledge was the great tragedy of these epidemics of disease.

4) The vast wilderness seen in 1600 was vastly different from how it was in 1491

America in 1600 was vastly different than in 1491 due to the massive loss of human life. The vast wilderness and huge population of buffalos and passenger pigeons in 1600 did not exist in 1491 when the Indians had a larger population. The "virgin" land that early Americans talked of was not how the land had always been, but rather how it had just become.

Prior to 1491, passenger pigeons were probably a rare species. After the Indian population lessened, populations exploded to maybe 5 billion in their highest numbers. One flock passing overhead could form a single cloud for 3 days straight. In 1800 at least 1 out of very 4 birds in North America was a passenger pigeon.

Indians were neither noble nor savages, instead they were just like humans everywhere else on the planet. They did not live lightly on the land, and many ancient American civilizations went into decline due to unsustainable environmental practices. They "managed" most of the land. In the plains of North America, the Indians would burn the land. This would get rid of the undergrowth in forests and make it more hospitable for game.

Anthropologists now believe that the majority of the Amazon rain forest was managed by humans. There are many fruit and nut bearing trees in the Amazon, and this was probably due to human interference. They also used a unique form of burning in the Amazon, where they would stop the fields from completely burning so that there would be charcoal. Turns out the active carbon in charcoal bonds to organic elements and makes the soil as good or probably better than using fertilizer.

5) Corn was a man made crop

In 5000 BC, in what many scientists regard as humankind's first and greatest feat of genetic engineering, Indians in southern Mexico systematically breed maize (corn) from dissimilar ancestor species.

Milpa is a field where farmers plant 12 crops at once, including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilis, sweet potato, jicama, amaranth (a grain like plant), and mucuna (a tropical legume). Beans use the maize stocks to grow up, underground the beans fix nitrogen for the maize. Milpas have farmed the same land for 4,000 years and are still productive.
So not only did the ancient Meso-Americans create the crop that is now the number one grain in the world in terms of tonnage produced, these also came up with a form of sustainable agriculture (as opposed to the birth of wheat in the Fertile Crescent which now is producing nothing but sand storms). The author comments that if scientists genetically engineered a crop like corn today, they would get a noble prize, if Green Peace didn't stop them from making it.

6) Transfer of food: tomatoes, corn, peppers, potatoes are all native American crops.

Can you imagine Italian food without tomatoes? Indian or Thai food without chilis? And who knew that the potato famine in Ireland wouldn't have happened without having taken back from South America. And going the other direction, Mexican food without cheese (there were no cows or other milk bearing animals in the Americas)? As American as apple pie? Turns out apples originated in the Middle East. Amazing how the foods get assimilated into their new cuisine in such a way that we can't even imagine them now without them.

7) Amazon rainforest is a "wet desert"
Amazon soil is poor, intense rain and heat of forest have eroded its surface, washed out all its minerals and decomposed vital organic compounds. As a result much of the red Amazonian soil is weathered, harshly acid, and almost bereft of essential nutrients - one reason ecologists refer to the tropical forest as a "wet desert". Most nutrients in tropical forests are stored not in the soil as in temperate regions, but in the vegetations that covers it.
Why in the heck are the soy farmers trying to cut it down then? Looks like after 10 years the land will be worthless as agricultural land.

These are just my favorite observations. The book has tons of such facts. A definite must read.

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