Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry


E-mail from library: "Snuff has arrived!" (Pratchett's latest.) I go down to get it. On the counter is 1493 by Charles Mann, author of 1491 on pre-Columbian America. I grabbed that. And it's due in a week without renewals, so for once a new Discworld novel can wait. 1493 is on "the world Columbus created", particularly the biological/ecological Columbian exchange of species. I think I saw a reviewer say "isn't this stuff every educated person already knows?" but so far the answer is "no, it's far more detailed". It also points out analogies to modern globalization: if you have a city with people from four continents, it might be Mexico City in the 1500s; if you have Japanese loggers in Brazil, it might also be the 1500s.

Some highlights so far:

Manila has a little-known statue to Legazpi and Urdaneta, who established trade between Spanish American and China. Magellan had been through decades before, but they established a colony, and Urdaneta figured out how to sail back east, and Legazpi contacted Chinese merchants visiting the Philippines, who were delighted to discover that the Europeans, though surprisingly coming from the east, wanted anything the Chinese could sell, and had lots of silver, the one 'European' good the Chinese wanted.

Ecologically, China quickly got maize and sweet potatoes out of the deal, which meant more farming in the dry uplands rather than the rice zone of the river valleys, which then meant a wave of deforestation, erosion, flood, and death.

Columbus was never known as such. He went from Cristoforo Colombo in Genoa, to Critovao Colombo in Portugal, to Christóbal Colón in Spain, to the explorer formerly known as Columbus with the signature:

    . S .
  S . A . S
    X M Υ
 : Xρo FERENS./

which no one's really sure about.

The Little Ice Age might have been an effect of the exchange, particularly of the diseases sweeping through the Americas, killing off the people who'd been doing annual burning to manage their lands. Less burning, massive reforestation or accumulation of undergrowth -> less CO2 -> cold spells or disruption everywhere, especially Europe and China. And surprisingly, more malaria, colder temperatures allowing breeding pools to hang around longer. In China it was less about snow and more about bursts of rain alternating with bouts of cold drought. "The five worst years of drought in five centuries occurred between 1637 and 1641. This year [1642] rain is drowning the crops... Cold, wet weather and mass deaths ensure that more than two-thirds of China's farmland is no longer being tilled." In two more years the Manchus would establish the Qing Dynasty, replacing the troubled Ming; Columbus has cancelled the Mandate of Heaven. (That dramatic flourish is mine.)

Modern estimates of Hispaniola's Taino population range from 60,000 to 8 million. Not very useful. An estimate at the time was 3 million. 22 years later, a careful census found 26,000.

The tobacco we smoke today comes from the Caribbean; the native Virginia leaf was a different species and a lot nastier, though still smoked by the Indians. The crop that Virginia's fortunes took off on was based on southern seeds. Also, tobacco is a sponge for nitrogen and potassium -- and because the whole plant was harvested and shipped off, it drained the soil. The spread of Jamestown was partly due to unwitting ecological warfare via tobacco, pig (eating the roots that backstopped the Indian food supply), and honeybee (pollinating European plants.)

Jamestown was settled on the edge of what was basically the Powhatan empire of Tsenacomoco, as large -- by travel time though not physical distance -- as England. The way of life was sophisticated but so alien that the Europeans couldn't recognize it as cultivation. No domesticated animals, so no fences -- a hallmark of English civilization -- to keep them in. Common land, so no fenced woods to keep out poachers. No animal driven plows, so no monocropped fields of wheat, instead the "three sisters" system of maize intertwined with beans and with squashes at the bottom, all three growing out of the same hole. Fallow land as a communal larger of greens and medicinals the Europeans didn't recognize or know the uses of. And a different land: England was much drier away from the banks of the swift rivers, while Chesapeake Bay was a patchwork of various kinds of wetlands and slow streams, a state credited to the beaver, and advantageous if your transportation is by canoe rather than by boot or horse, and if you rely on marsh tuckahoe tuber as a backup food supply. "A random snarl of marshes, beaver ponds, unkempt fields, and hostile forest" to English eyes.

The beaver would be hunted to near extinction, and replaced as natural engineer by the European earthworm, the long term effects (climax ecology) of which are still unknown. In the short term it can in a few months suck the leaf litter into the soil, killing off plants and animals which depend on litter instead of soil for food. Deforestation and plowing would do their part for pro-European terraforming of America as well.

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/299448.html#comments



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 21st, 2011 07:44 am (UTC)
What reason does he give the European earthworm was imported?
Nov. 21st, 2011 04:46 pm (UTC)
I think you're missing some words for clarity. Are you asking what reason there is to think the earthworm isn't native, or why it was imported? For the latter, it probably just came along with the dirt. Imported lants in rootballs, English soil and rocks as ship ballast dumped before picking up tobacco. For the former, he just says it's clear New England and the Upper Midwest had no worms, exterminated in the last glaciation.


A total of approximately 182 earthworm taxa in 12 families are reported from America north of Mexico, i.e., USA & Canada, of which 60 (ca. 33%) are exotic/introduced.[9] Only two genera of Lumbricid earthworms are indigenous to North America while introduced genera have spread to areas where earthworms did not formerly exist, especially in the north where forest development relies on a large amount of undecayed leaf matter. When worms decompose that leaf layer, the ecology may shift making the habitat unsurvivable for certain species of trees, ferns and wildflowers. Another possible ecologic impact of greater earthworm numbers: larger earthworms (e.g. the night crawler, Lumbricus terrestris, and the Alabama jumper, Amynthas agrestis) can be eaten by adult salamanders, and when the salamanders do consume the earthworms they are more successful at reproduction. However, those earthworms are too large for juvenile salamanders to consume, which leads to a net loss in salamander population.[10]
Nov. 21st, 2011 12:22 pm (UTC)
you've convinced me to get these 2 books. Fascinating, thanks.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

Latest Month

July 2018


Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Lilia Ahner