1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

January 21, 2018

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

Why share a book report
…about Charles Mann’s 2011 volume about the massive global changes that followed the European venture to the Western Hemisphere… with blog readers interested in herbs?

Two sources of herbal knowledge
The “Western herbalism” that we grew up with clearly reflects the coming together, beginning in 1493, of two great streams of healing plant lore. I’d always been curious about how that came to be.

Cultivated European medicinal plants, and naturalized Eurasian weeds with medicinal uses, are widespread in North America.

Many Native American botanicals have played important roles for centuries in Anglo-European herbal medicine.

Gradually over the past few decades, herbs from China, India, Africa, and Amazonia have gained increasing recognition within Western herbal circles. Yet most of the “major players” until now are still plants from Europe and native North American plants.

While Mann’s book has little to say directly about medicinal herbs (tobacco and coffee don’t really count), his description of the globalization process that started in 1493 is tremendously useful in establishing the context for this meeting of medicines. The intermixing we see in the realm of plant medicines went hand in hand with the global diffusion of food crops.

Ecology as history
Many of us who are drawn to the study and use of herbal remedies are also interested in the ecological perspective as a framework for understanding how the world works, and how human systems are embedded in natural systems. And generally, the fact that we’re looking toward natural options for healthier living means that we’re curious, and open to other ways to make sense of things.

History is often presented as a series of events in which people—mainly Great Men of European ancestry—make discoveries, fight battles, attain high positions, complete amazing projects, and so on. 1493 offers a very different picture, where human intentions are often thwarted, plans often go awry, chaos often intervenes, and unexpected results are more the rule than the exception. (Nature bats last, as someone smart pointed out.)

Epidemics and conquest
Earlier in 2017 I’d read Mann’s book 1491, which outlined the situations of peoples in the two hemispheres shortly before and just after contact was established. The European conquest of North and South America was largely facilitated by shattering disease epidemics among Native Americans, including smallpox, measles, malaria, and influenza, that led to the death of 90+ percent of the inhabitants, and massive disruption of the farming civilizations that had thrived in the Western Hemisphere for millennia.

Epidemics and slavery
1493 investigates many interrelated topics, including the critical role assumed by malaria and yellow fever in pulling “New World” agriculture into a then-new form of organization—plantation slavery. Africans had developed significant immunity to these mosquito-borne infections. Because of their much greater resilience, the early enterprises that Europeans undertook in the Western Hemisphere, growing quantities of tobacco and sugar as cash crops for export in zones where so many European immigrants were killed or laid low by the infections, quickly came to rely on forced African labor.

The effect on immigrant demographics was striking, according to Mann: until the late nineteenth-century surge in European immigration, the majority of post-Indigenous Western Hemisphere populations, the folks who came over in the greatest numbers and did most of the work, were black.

Malaria and plant medicines
My own background includes a long involvement with homeopathy, and the key discovery—the mythic “Aha!” moment—at the start of homeopathy was identifying the similarity of the effects of (“New World”) Peruvian Bark, Cinchona, to the symptoms of (“Old World”) malaria, the disease that quinine-rich Peruvian Bark was essential for treating.

Old-time and current herbal literature suggests a variety of botanical remedies for malaria (including BonesetFenugreekCinnamon, and Oregano essential oil), which was rampant in many parts of Europe and North America until well into the last century, and currently remains a serious barrier to development in many other regions of the world.

To this day, the major antimalarial pharmaceuticals are based on plant medicines: quinine derivatives (to which many malaria strains have become resistant) and artemisinin, from Artemisia annua (Sweet Wormwood).

Ecology and climate change
The disruption of Native agriculture, and the halt to the widespread managed fires that Indians had long used to selectively clear huge areas of land and optimize the terrain for farming and hunting, led to sudden, dense forestation of much of the hemisphere. The resulting shifts in reflected heat and the atmospheric oxygen/carbon dioxide balance may have been a factor influencing the onset of so-called Little Ice Age, which had catastrophic effects on global climate and food production for nearly three hundred years, from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.

The magnitude, duration, and probable cause of this episode was one more among many items in 1493 that drastically shifted my sense of how the world we know has come to be. Human-caused climate change is a big deal—not only in today’s news, but in relatively recent history.

New crops and global upheaval
The inclusion of valuable Native American herbs in the global pharmacopeia was just one part of the tremendous impact of “New World” plants on people’s lives everywhere. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn were quickly introduced to Europe, Asia, and Africa, and led to greatly increased human populations all over the place. 1493 opens with a visit to the author’s New England garden, where all the very familiar food plants he’s growing for his family originate in locations very far way, in Mexico, Peru, Eurasia, and so on.

There are so many surprises in this book: about honeybees and earthworms, rubber trees and tobacco, galleons and guano… Altogether, though I often found it difficult to join with Mann in avoiding judgments about many of the choices that human actors made in this story, the facts he marshals are compelling and well-presented, and I found 1493 quite rewarding as a fresh take on the last five centuries of life’s complicated journey on Earth.