September 13th, 2016
Same Old (New) World
There are times when I look at the culture I inhabit — taking note of the supersized food, the love affair with plastic, the apparently holy commandment to use as much energy as possible — and I wonder how on earth we got this way. Was it the fact that the US used to be the Saudi Arabia of the world? Or maybe it was the abundant farmland? Or perhaps it was simply the allure of the movies that made so many aspire to an overinflated lifestyle. The one thing, however, that I never considered was to pin it on Christopher Columbus.
Cheesy school textbooks frame Columbus as the start of something, but he was the end of something, too, something that began a very long time ago. We know from a layer of clay that remained hidden until the last decade or so, that twelve and a half thousand years in the past, near what eventually became the southern Chilean city of Puerto Montt, a child stood beside a cooking hearth, a fire which may well have been roasting a Mastodon steak.
Long before the ice age faded enough to allow a land migration, a maritime people made their way from the old world to the new, following the rich and easy foods of the shoreline and becoming the ancestors of those who would eventually be confronted by the descendants of those who remained in the Old World.
But after those first maritime people arrived — possibly as far back as 18,000 years ago, and perhaps even earlier — migration stopped. The New World became a sort of very large island, isolated from the changes and intermixing that dominated the old. Genetically speaking, the indigenous peoples of America were the most pure-blooded people on the planet, with much more homogenous DNA than the thoroughly mongrelized populations of the Old World.
That isolation, of course, was ended by the Spanish Empire and its most famous employee. Columbus — dubious namesake of cities, streets, and a national holiday — was framed as an explorer, but that was never the point. It was about commerce, or more precisely, resources for trade.
Columbus wasn’t the first. The Vikings had spent a few seasons in the New World a half-millennium before, and European fishermen had known (and kept) the secret of the astonishingly rich cod fisheries off North America for a century before Columbus’ voyage. But it was Columbus who opened the door that never again shut, the passage that mixed the living beings of the New and Old World.
Historian Alfred Crosby has named this movement of plants, animals and microorganisms the Columbian Exchange and if there’s anything worth memorializing about Columbus, it’s the fallout of that genetic swap.
In its simplest form, the Old World acquired a suite of new plant foods, while the New World was populated by the Old’s livestock. Today, there are approximately 640 significant cultivated plants; about one hundred of them came from the New World. Tobacco, of course, was one, and so was rubber and some cottons. But it’s the New World foods that stand out, including maize (corn), peanut, manioc, squash, some beans, pumpkin, papaya, guava, avocado, pineapple, tomato, cocoa, potato, and chile pepper.
The Spanish, however, wanted the taste of home and they worked furiously to produce wheat, wine and olive oil in their new empire. It wasn’t easy, replanting a Mediterranean trinity in a tropical environment. Still, by 1600 — twenty years before the Pilgrims set up shop in Massachusetts — all of the Old World’s significant crops were growing in the New.
And the New World’s crops returned the favor, with West Indian flavors ironically making their way to the East Indies that Columbus initially thought he’d found. Much of what we think of as the ancient, timeless cuisines of China and India is actually new, because it was only five hundred years ago that they acquired their chili-fueled heat. Potatoes, as you know, migrated from the Andes to Europe and became the friend of impoverished people all across the temperate zones, producing more food on less land and requiring less skill than any comparable crop. Corn/Maize, too, filled a missing need in the Old World, growing on arable land that was too dry for rice and too wet for wheat.
Less visible from our Eurocentric hemisphere, manioc (AKA tapioca or cassava) has become the potato of the tropics, a key to subsistence agriculture in Africa, invulnerable to pests and disease, and unbothered by both drought and flood. Likewise, China was transformed. Within the time that some of Cortez’ last soldiers still walked the earth, both maize and sweet potato were growing in China. Before these new crops, Chinese farmers were clustered into about a third of the country, the wet lowlands. Maize and sweet potato turned the bleak north into farming territory, fueling the start of China’s demographic arc to the One Child Policy.
But though our lives depend upon what grows in the ground, our culture has always been more intrigued by feet than roots and here the transformation was even more dramatic. In simplest terms, before the arrival of Columbus, the most powerful pack animal you could find in the New World was homo sapiens. Yes, there were dogs, and a couple of small camel relatives in the form of llamas and alpacas, but none of them them could provide much power. When the Spanish arrived, their horses were the biggest land animals most New Worlders had ever seen, and what’s more, they obeyed the commands of the men on their backs.
The entire European constellation of large domesticated animals was simply absent from the New World and that, in many ways, explains the disaster that engulfed the natives of the New World. For one thing, the germ warfare that the Europeans carried with them — smallpox in particular — was a cattle disease that had jumped to humans because cattle lived cheek by jowl with humans in the Old World.
From our vantage in the twilight of the oil age, we see farm animals as a source of food. But the Europeans of the Renaissance understood them as the foundation of their entire civilization, a resource that could be shaped by humans. Portuguese sailors, for instance, often left breeding pairs of pigs on any uninhabited island they would pass. It meant that later sailors would find food there, and it worked so well that it was common to find unpeopled islands seething with porkers.
It is almost impossible for us moderns to understand the importance of the sheer power embodied in all those horses, donkeys, mules and oxen. European styles of transportation, communication, and farming were impossible without draft animals to do the heavy work. What’s more, animals were effectively portable motors; small mills of all sorts — the most important being grain mills — could be set up in a day, driven by animal power. When big domesticated animals arrived in the New World, the change in available power was equivalent to the appearance of the steam engine in the Old.
But there’s another way to understand the transformative power of those animals. Cattle, sheep, and goats are so overwhelmingly familiar to us that it’s easy to forget that they perform a most precious and peculiar alchemy — they transform an unusable food source into food for people. They convert grass into milk and meat.
The indigenous people of the New World had no animals that could perform this alchemy, but boy, oh boy, did they have grasslands. In South and North America, thousands upon thousands of square miles of grass waved in the breeze, fundamentally unnibbled by indigenous animals. What these immense grasslands represented were centuries of captured and stored solar energy, a gratuitous bounty of calories for those that could ingest them.
The cattle that came with the Spanish were not the dull Flossies and Bessies of a hundred children’s books. These Iberian cattle were nimble and tough, armed with formidable horns and the moxie to use them. Cattle escaped, spreading through the South American mainland and discovering an unimaginable bounty of grass. The result was a veritable biological explosion of fertility, as cows produced three calves per year. It was the same for horses, pigs and goats, and the result, within a few decades, were feral herds so large and so far-ranging that when later generations of settlers pushed into virgin territory, they found their farm animals waiting for them and assumed that they were native to the land.
The animals pushed into North America, too, eventually coming into contact with the Indian tribes of the Plains. Before the arrival of the wild horses, tribes like the Sioux survived through a spare and unforgiving kind of agriculture that barely kept them alive. Horses transformed their societies completely. They abandoned their settled lifestyle and became high speed nomads who could harvest the fast Plains animals such as buffalo. It was really for only a few generations that the Plains Indians were the apotheosis of mounted societies, but those generations were the ones that became fixed in our national mythology.
However, before the Plains Indians mounted their first wild horses, something else had already embedded itself in the greater mythology. The incredible fecundity of those first generations of animals soon settled, but the pattern was set. European adaptations were designed to wring the most productivity from a very well worn landscape. Here, in the relatively undamaged New World, the result was wild overproduction.
First off, there was meat, more meat than any human culture had ever had access to. The citizens of Spain and Portugal’s New World empires were probably the best fed humans to ever walk the earth, and even more so in comparison with the overpopulated lands they left behind. And it wasn’t just beef. Pigs, that most adaptable of domestic animals, expanded their feral populations so quickly that stockmen simply gave up raising them. Who would buy a pig to eat when you could simply find one free — probably rooting around in your garden right now.
Horses, too, were cheap and readily available; Europe’s most equestrian society produced an even more equestrian society. Nearly everyone had horsepower at their command, with the same results that we’re still encountering today. When travel is relatively effortless — or at least the effort doesn’t come from you — the culture tends to sprawl.
All those sides of beef and hams left behind lots of hides, which meant leather. While we might look on leather as a sort of high end textile, in the Renaissance, leather was effectively plastic, tough, shapeable and utilitarian.
And finally, there was tallow. Tallow, in case the facts don’t come immediately to mind, is rendered animal fat, typically beef. The reason that it’s significant is that — unless you were very well-heeled indeed — tallow was what your candles were made of. Now, the pricier beeswax candle was far superior, what with the fact that it didn’t emit greasy smoke and didn’t stink to high heaven. But for most people, tallow meant light and in the New World, light was dirt cheap.
So, to recap, within one hundred years of Columbus wading ashore we had bright lights, big cities, horsepower to cruise them and supersized beef at every meal and, oh yes, clothes made of very fancy plastic.