Christopher Columbus was a Jerk

by Stephen Morris

The World as We Never Knew It

“Fake News” is a term we are hearing a lot these days. Unfortunately, one person’s “fake news” is another person’s bedrock reality. It’s a practice, unfortunately, that has been going on long before it had a name. We also have “Fake History.”

We celebrate Columbus Day to commemorate the “discovery” of the so-called “New World” by the enlightened, technologically-advanced Western Europeans who came to North America in 1492, encountering a pristine, sparsely populated continent whose only inhabitants were primitive, Stone Age savages. The Pilgrims settled at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and, due to their sophistication and technological superiority, quickly brought civilization to a savage world.

That’s the story from our text books, and we swallowed it hook, line, and sinker as our bedrock reality. Our established worldview, however, as now been muddied by these emerging except for these emerging facts:

  • The so-called New World was organizing itself into sophisticated cultures while Western Europe was barely emerging from under a sheet of ice from the final Ice Age.
  • There were likely more people in the New World than the Old, including well-established, enlightened technologies more advanced than those of Europe.
  • The natives of the New World may have been deemed “savages,” but they were in many cases employing ecological management techniques and strategies that we are only now beginning to understand and appreciate.

A tandem of books by Charles Mann, 1491 and 1493 rocks the foundation of Western thought. Take this one small example. The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was probably an answer to a question asked on that eighth grade history quiz. All you needed was “Spanish” … “explorer” … “looking for gold.” For extra credit … his birth dates 1500 to 1542.

But de Soto also explored extensively in the southeastern US where he discovered no gold, but well-established native populations who farmed extensively, raising maize, a genetically-engineered species that allowed their culture to thrive for millennia. Alas, de Sota also brought with him a large number of pigs, a species that carried a stew of European diseases against which the natives had no tolerance or immunity.

de Soto died on the banks of the Mississippi, his mission a flop, but his real legacy the introduction of plagues so lethal that by the time European settlers returned to establish homesteads in the Southeast in the late 1700s, the native cultures had largely disappeared.

Why didn’t we ever hear this part of the story? Fake history. When the Spanish crown sends you off to find silver and gold, you don’t want to return with stories of civilizations living in harmony with the environment who place little value on substances like gold.

I recommend reading Mann’s second volume, 1493 first, because it portrays a world that is more proximate to current “reality,” whatever that is. From the publisher’s description:

Driven by the economic goal of establishing trade with China, Columbus accidentally set off an ecological convulsion as European vessels carried thousands of species to new homes across the oceans. The Columbian Exchange, as researchers call it, is the reason there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Switzerland, and chili peppers in Thailand. More important, creatures the colonists knew nothing about hitched along for the ride. Earthworms, mosquitoes, and cockroaches; honeybees, dandelions, and African grasses; bacteria, fungi, and viruses; rats of every description – all of them rushed like eager tourists into lands that had never seen their like before, changing lives and landscapes across the planet. 

Eight decades after Columbus, a Spaniard named Legazpi succeeded where Columbus had failed. He sailed west to establish continual trade with China, then the richest, most powerful country in the world. In Manila, a city Legazpi founded, silver from the Americas, mined by African and Indian slaves, was sold to Asians in return for silk for Europeans. It was the first time that goods and people from every corner of the globe were connected in a single worldwide exchange. Much as Columbus created a new world biologically, Legazpi and the Spanish empire he served created a new world economically.

As Charles C. Mann shows, the Columbian Exchange underlies much of subsequent human history. Presenting the latest research by ecologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians, Mann shows how the creation of this worldwide network of exchange fostered the rise of Europe, devastated imperial China, convulsed Africa, and for two centuries made Mexico City – where Asia, Europe, and the new frontier of the Americas dynamically interacted – the center of the world. In such encounters, he uncovers the germ of today’s fiercest political disputes, from immigration to trade policy to culture wars.

1493 helps us understand our contemporary world, because we are still contending with the effects of the Columbian Exchange and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. 1491 is more mind-altering, because it portrays a world that differs sharply from the one that we’ve been brainwashed into thinking was “real.”

Traditionally, Americans learned in school that the ancestors of the people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere at the time of Columbus’ landing had crossed the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago; existed mainly in small nomadic bands; and lived so lightly on the land that the Americas were, for all practical purposes, still a vast wilderness. But as Charles C. Mann now makes clear, archaeologists and anthropologists have spent the last 30 years proving these and many other long-held assumptions wrong.

In a book that startles and persuades, Mann reveals how a new generation of researchers equipped with novel scientific techniques came to previously unheard-of conclusions. Among them:

  • Certain cities – such as Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital – were far greater in population than any contemporary European city. Furthermore, Tenochtitlán, unlike any capital in Europe at that time, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and immaculately clean streets.
  • The earliest cities in the Western Hemisphere were thriving before the Egyptians built the great pyramids.
  • Pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico developed corn by a breeding process so sophisticated that the journal Science recently described it as “man’s first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering”.
  • Amazonian Indians learned how to farm the rain forest without destroying it – a process scientists are studying today in the hope of regaining this lost knowledge.
  • Native Americans transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already massively “landscaped” by human beings.

Mann sheds clarifying light on the methods used to arrive at these new visions of the pre-Columbian Americas and how they have affected our understanding of our history and our thinking about the environment. His book is an exciting and learned account of scientific inquiry and revelation

History is written by the victors,” said Winston Churchill, supposedly (I don’t know who to believe any more). But no one stays a victor forever, so don’t cling to your beliefs too tightly. Tomorrow the story surely will change.

Stephen Morris is the Publisher of Silverback Digest.

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