Charles Mann’s 1493

I read Charles Mann‘s fantastic book 1491 a few months ago, and was greatly impressed by its description of the deep cultural diversity of the American peoples and civilizations before their first encounters with European explorers.  From this experience, I was excited to have the opportunity recently to read his follow up work, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. While not at the same level of quality as 1491, it is still an eminently worthwhile read.

The two concepts key to 1493 are the “Columbian Exchange” (the extensive worldwide trade networks that quickly grew following the discovery of the New World) and the “Homogenocene” (the era of history in which humanity has connected the biological world).  Through a series of in-depth looks into examples of these concepts, from how Spanish silver became the currency of the Chinese economy, to how the importation of potatoes from South America to Europe helped end centuries of malnutrition among Europe’s peasants, Mann uncovers interesting insights into how rapidly the discovery of the new world affected humanity around the world.

Unfortunately for Mann there are so many examples of the Columbian Exchange possible that it is impossible to cover them all.  In the end, I was left feeling like I’d learned about a number of interesting and insightful examples of the exchange but didn’t feel like I’d learned much that substantially deepened either my understanding of the modern world or of humanity itself.  It is in this way that 1493 fails to live up to the standard of 1491.  In no way does that imply that this isn’t a book worth reading.  It simply means that this book can only be considered interesting rather than essential.


Geoff is a software developer and long time member of the BCMC

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