by Charles C. Mann
Sequel (if you can call it that?) to 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
When Christopher Columbus – or Colón as he was known by his contemporaries – first set foot in America, he set off a chain of events that revolutionized the world. By creating a bridge between the Old and New Worlds, Colón inadvertently set in motion the “Columbian Exchange”, or the trade of plants, animals, diseases, and suchlike throughout the world with a biological impact unmatched by anything in human history. At least, that's the theory introduced by Alfred Crosby in the 1970s and explored by Charles C. Mann in his latest book. From earthworms and honeybees to potatoes and chocolate, the impact of new biological species on both sides of the Atlantic are researched in great detail.
It's pretty hard to argue with Mann's thesis. He's essentially saying, if you boil it down to the simplest terms, that when Europeans came to the Americas, life around the world changed dramatically. Well, duh...I could have told you that. But the book really isn't about proving a theory so much as simply finding out how this exchange played out throughout the world, and it is fascinating. Some of the examples are pretty straightforward: diseases wiped out large Native American populations, the slave trade moved large populations from Africa to North and South America, and foods like potatoes and tomatoes have become staples around the world. But many of these stories were new to me. One of the biggest exports from South America in the 19th century was guano. Seagull and bat poop. How gross is that? Apparently, it works wonders as a fertilizer, something I did not know.
The book doesn't focus on just Europe and the Americas, either. There's an extensive passage about the Chinese and their encounters with the Spanish in the Philippines, and lengthy discussions of life in Africa.
The stories are richly detailed and vary greatly, so I learned all sorts of new things. But as you can imagine, a book covering such vast geographical territories and a long stretch of time – Mann writes about events right up into the present – will jump around a lot. The book is very episodic in nature, and other than a vague relation to the Columbian Exchange there's not a lot unifying each narrative into a cohesive whole. This doesn't bother me, but I know that it would drive some readers absolutely nuts. But if you like to dive into history and poke around for entertaining facts and trivia, you'll love this book.
4 out of 5 stars
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