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1491/1493

Based on the titles, it seems like Charles C Mann wants us to view 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created as a pair. So I read them back to back, and it’s basically true. In principle 1491 is about pre-Columbian America while 1493 is about the Columbian Exchange. In practice, however, in order to understand why it is that the true state of pre-Columbian America hasn’t always been understood, 1491 needs to take us well into the era of colonization, and for 1493 to explain what changed it has to explain what happened before.

As a pair, their fascinating, entertaining, and informative if a bit frustratingly diffuse at times. 1493, in particular, left me eager to learn the answers to some questions that I imagine other readers will have. What did Italians eat before tomatoes? Why does Szechuan cooking have a particular predilection for hot peppers if they’re not even remotely native to the area?

The story of the potato’s introduction into Europe, which he does pursue, is pretty fascinating. Potatoes are a basically optimal source of calories per acre across huge swathes of Northern Europe, but they’re native to Peru. Europeans were extremely reluctant to grow and eat them, but governments wanted to see potato fields planted to increase their population growth rate. Many efforts had to be made to persuade them, and one of Frederick the Great’s many achievements as ruler of Prussia came in this area.

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