1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann, is one of my favorite books ever, in any field. And now there is a “sequel,” namely 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, due out in August. Excerpt:
Incredibly, the Basque-Vicuña war had almost no effect on the flow of silver. Even as Basques and Vicuñas fought in the streets, they cooperated on mining and refining the silver, then shipping it from Potosi. The last was a huge task. One account describes how a single shipment of 7,771 bars left the city in 1549, four years after the lode’s discovery. Each bar was about 99 percent silver and weighed more than eighty pounds. All were stamped with serial numbers by the foundry and marked with the owner’s stamp, the foundry stamp, and the taxman’s stamp. By the time the assayer individually certified its purity with his stamp, the bar looked as if it had been graffiti-tagged by a demented numerologist. Each llama could carry only three or four bars. (Mules are bigger than llamas, but need more water and are less surefooted.) The shipment required more than two thousand of the beasts. They were watched by more than a thousand Indian guards who in turn were watched by squads of Spanish pistoleros.
Is 1493 as good as 1491? That’s hard to say, but I can report this. I am spellbound reading it, it will be one of the best books of this year, and, although I know this area somewhat, I am learning fascinating information on literally every page. Mann stresses how much it mattered to suddenly be living in the “Homogenocene,” where Asia, Europe, and the New World suddenly started becoming more alike. Mexico City had the world’s first Chinatown and was the first global city. The discussion of the importance of the potato, and in general New World agriculture, surpasses previous accounts and he explains the importance of knowing how to make chuño.
I have an irrational fondness for this sentence of Mann’s:
The First World War distracted governments from the task of monitoring insect movements.
Definitely recommended. By the way, here is Mann’s piece on soil erosion and the economics of dirt. Here is Mann’s home page. Journalists, if anyone is crying out to be the subject of a fascinating profile, it is Charles C. Mann.