I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations on the Americas Before Columbus and so was thrilled to see it’s sequel 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created sitting in the book store window. 1493 follows in much the same style as 1491, both having a superb narrative flow that is dense with unique historical details and an excellent storytelling style that marks a true page turner. Mann presents an incredibly expansive and fresh look at what brought about unprecedented changes for the entire world after 1492. He calls the era from 1493 to the present the homogenocene, a term he coined, meaning, that all the ecologies and economies of the earth were connected by human activities after 1493.
The first chapter lays out the key themes that make this book invaluable: the thorough history of an era and attention to details that have been largely unexplored by other historians. Particularly memorable are the exchanges between Spain and China and the way the crops from the Americas affected Chinese and Southeast Asia’s culture, economies and landscapes. Mann fills in the gaps in the oft told history of the slave trade and slave culture providing new insight and even talks about early climate change.
The Little Ice Age (1550-1750) was a particularly cold period in history showing the human relationship with the delicate balance of the Earth. Brought on by the early contact of American Indian tribes with the Spaniards in the 1400’s, this first contact caused such a major die off of American Indian populations (see 1491), who had managed vast areas of the continent through intentional burns, that their absence caused the forests to grow back on the eastern seaboard. This forest regrowth dropped global carbon levels and temperatures drastically. The Little Ice Age shows the previous impact humans have had on climate change and makes it crystal clear that planting trees and protecting Earth’s ancient forests is the solution for cooling our planet.
His telling of how the sweet potato, corn and tobacco affected China is astounding. Each crop had varying degrees to which it displaced rice culture, increased population significantly and caused severe ecological damage from attempts at farming in delicate eco-regions. I found the depth of Chinese history that Mann presented engrossing, especially the history of rubber and rubber plantations that spread all over China and Southeast Asia. The impacts of some of Mao’s agricultural policies on the ecologies of China were new and startling.
This book is full of towns and cities and dramas you never knew existed such as Potosi. A mere 13,000 feet up in the Andes it was the largest community in the America’s in 1642. Fueled by silver mining, Potosi was, “a brawling boomtown marked by extravagant display and hoodlum crime.” The Spanish enslaved millions who died carving the precious metal out of the mountains of Mexico and Bolivia and managed to triple the silver in the global economies stock of precious metals. What happened to all that silver? It seems that vast quantities of it were diverted from the Spanish coffers and sold or traded to the Chinese in the Philippine’s due to Chinese laws prohibiting trading with the Spanish on Chinese soil.
He ends the book with revealing details about the slave trade, slave culture and the number of europeans who died of diseases trying to colonize Panama, Haiti and Central America. It is staggering how many slaves were brought here to mine and farm the Americas.This section compelled me to pick up Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean 1620-1914 by J.R. McNeil, which I will review when it re-surfaces in my book pile.
So much of the history of the Americas has been destroyed, suppressed or forgotten. Charles Mann’s 1493, along with it’s predecessor 1491, successfully reconstructs a clearer picture of the story of the Americas, one that shows their advancement, accomplishment, rich mythology and resilience in the face of constant change.
Richard Wrangham’s book Catching Fire was a real pleasure to read and a powerhouse of the latest condensed up to date scientific information about human evolution and primate behavior. He is Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University and has worked extensively with chimpanzees and our other living primate relatives bonobos and mountain gorillas. Wrangham is also versed in the field of behavioral biology (which is one of my interests as well) and lucidly brings forth all of this experience into the writing of this, subtly radical, book.
He lays the ground work early on establishing that, clearly, we are unique among primates due in part to our human ancestors initially eating more meat then any other primate. Our early diet provided the caloric density required for larger brain growth. This change in our diet around 2.5 million years ago brought us to the stage of habiline or more specifically Homo habilis the tool user. Then, a second transformation around 1.8 million years ago occured as we evolved into Homo erectus.
It is this second hominid phase of evolution that Wrangham explores by hypothesizing that the use of fire and cooking brought not one but two transformations: our evolution from Homo habilis into Homo erectus and from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens.
His inquiry is profound in it’s insight due to the simplicity and clarity with which he investigates our evolutionary path and our relationship with fire.
"Animals need food, water and shelter. We humans need all those things, but we need fire too. How long have we needed it? Few people have thought about this question."
His first chapter dives right into the sector of foodies that might resist his thesis most: raw foodists.
He pulls data from all the raw food diet studies he can find. The most extensive study that took place in Germany, the Giessen Raw Food Study, found that 82% of long term raw foodists include some cooked food in their diets.
"Reduced reproductive function means that in our evolutionary past, raw foodism would have been much less successful then the habit of eating cooked food. A rate of infertility greater then 50 percent, such as was found in the Giessen study, would be devastating in a natural population of foragers."
He goes on to to point out that the people in the study were middle class urbanites who did not have to work as hard foraging as our human ancestors, which would have dropped fertility even more due to physical exertion compounding the nutritional deficiencies. Wrangham goes in depth into a few fascinating studies of human digestion to begin to unravel some of the fundamental differences between raw, cooked and processed foods and how our bodies convert and absorb sustenance from them.
Professor Wrangham also investigates the classic mythologically of raw traditional cultures showing that even the Inuit are eating a cooked evening meal. In addition, for most cultures around the world the evening meal is the largest meal and it is cooked. He then explores how in survival situations people who were eating a rich diverse raw diet became very thin and famished and dreamt of cooked food.
The next few chapters go into a great story about how our guts and brains coevolved in response to a diet of cooked food. Our intestines have shortened our stomach and our mouth is smaller and our teeth are less substantial then all other primates. These physiological differences can be attributed in part to diminishing the time we spend needing to masticate raw foods. Thank goodness as we’ve got other things to do than sit around chewing plants for hours like our mountain gorilla relatives .
Our brains require massive quantities of caloric intake to grow and to operate and there is a clear pattern in evolution that shows that such a high demand organ would need a dense diet to support it. Wrangham illustrates this by some great behavioral biology detail on various species and their high demand bodies and what they all eat.
In the chapter “Brain Foods,” he tells some tasty stories of traditional cultural cuisines as catalyst for brain growth by proposing yet another evolutionary leap through cooking: the use of cooking containers as far back as 120,000 years ago. The reduction in digestive costs from longer cooking times, which containers made possible, may have facilitated further increases in brain size in our the overall evolution of our species. We were able to absorb more nutrients as well. Here’s an idea for your next barbeque: the Adaman Islanders take a length of bamboo and heat it over the fire to dry it out. Next, it is packed with half cooked pieces of wild pork or other meat and heated slowly to swell without cracking. The stuffed bamboo is then taken off the fire, stuffed with leaves to seal it thoroughly and left for several days to ferment. Many of these traditional ways are sadly lost to us today. Maybe one of you out there might be willing to resurrect this gustatory delight? Let me know.
And finally, in yet another fascinating chapter titled, “When Cooking Began,” Wrangham brings the idea home that our living bodies have as much to tell us about when cooking began as do fossils and archaeology.”Humans do not eat cooked food because we have the right kind of teeth and guts: rather, we have small teeth and short guts as a result of adapting to a cooked diet.” He then gives multiple examples of how diet changes the physiology of animals demonstrating that over time there is a tight fit between food and anatomy.
Enjoy reading this fascinating journey into human evolution, diet and our fellow primates and life forms on this wild planet. This is truly one of my latest favorite books that ties together many enlightening theories and ideas about our human evolution. It definitely whets my appetite for more of this kind of research and some slow cooked pastured beef bone broth stew with wild greens and some sauerkraut to bring in the microbes. Bon Apetit!
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