8 Sep 2009, 4:22pm
Cultivated Landscapes
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World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492

John L. Sorenson, Carl L. Johannessen. 2009. World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492. iUniverse. ISBN: 978-0-595-52441-9

A book review by Mike Dubrasich

There exists a pernicious myth that American Indians were savages (noble or not) living in roving bands of hunter-gatherers, at one with Nature due to their lack of civilization and technological sophistication.

That myth has been exploded by cutting-edge anthropology, archaeology, and historical landscape geography.

Prior to Columbus’ “discovery” of the “New World”, human beings had lived and thrived in the Americas for 12,000 years or more. They built great cities such as Teotihuacan, which by 700 C.E. had an estimated population of 200,000 and was larger than Paris and London combined four hundred years later!

Pre-Columbian Americans developed writing, mathematics, astronomy, and agriculture. Cropping systems were in use as much as 9,000 years ago [here] and had spread across much of both North and South America by 5,800 years ago [here].

People built incredible earthworks including terraces, raised fields, canals and irrigation systems for agriculture [here]. People modified soils for food cropping across vast territories such as Amazonia [here].

And pre-Columbian people developed food crops such corn (maize), potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, pumpkins (all edible squashes), sweet potatoes, sunflowers, peppers, pineapples, watermelons, strawberries, and pecans. All edible beans except horse beans and soybeans were developed in the pre-Columbian Americas.

It is widely believed that these food crops, common around the world today, were not known outside the Americas until Columbus and other contemporary explorers brought them to Europe 500 years ago. But if so, how do you explain this?

This wall sculpture from the Hoysala Dynasty Halebid temple at Somnathpur, Karnataka state, India, dates between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Among the numerous representations of maize ears, the shape of the ear, kernels off set in relation to those in adjacent rows, the presence of part of the husk, and other features ensure that no object other than an ear of maize could be represented. The mudra (sacred gesture) made by the figure’s hand underlines the sacred significance of the context and thus of maize. (Photograph by C. Johannessen.)

In World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 authors John L. Sorenson and Carl L. Johannessen present strong evidence that pre-Columbian Americans engaged in overseas trade:

People moved into America very early across the Bering Strait. By the fifth millennia B.C.E. tropical sailors brought diseases to America and took plants and animals in both directions.

Long before Columbus, tropical sailors carefully selected crops from New World highlands and shorelines, wet and dry climates, and took them to the Old World where they were grown in appropriate environments. Medicinal and psychedelic plants were traded and maintained in Egypt and Peru during separate 1,400-year periods. This implies that maritime trade was continuous.

In this groundbreaking book, learn about:

* 84 plants that were taken from the Americas to the Old World.
* What plants and animals were brought to the Americas.
* Why world trade was essential for transfer of so many.
* Interconnectedness of civilizations had to result from world trade.
* Dating of 18 species by archaeology with radio carbon shows dispersal.
* And much more!

Plants, diseases, and animals from America were distributed throughout the world, across the oceans before 1492. It is time for scientists, teachers, and students to reconsider their beliefs about the early history of civilization with World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492.

For instance, chili peppers on a 1,000-year-old bas relief from the temple at Parambanan, Java:

Among the plants that found their way from the Americas to India, China, Africa, and even the Mediterranean centuries before Columbus are: agave, amaranth, cashew, pineapple, peanuts, chili peppers, papaya, pumpkins, bottle gourds, arrowroot, basil, lima beans, kidney beans, and yes, maize.

Asiatic plants transplanted to the Americas long before Columbus include: marijuana, apazote, a cotton (Gossypium gossypioides), mulberry, bananas, plantain, and sugarcane.

Those are some of the plants for which there is decisive evidence of transoceanic movement. Plants that showed up in the Americas far from their continents of original domestication, but for which the evidence is significant but not quite decisive include: indigo, mangoes, tamarind, grapes, and sarsaparilla.

Additionally, 19 species of micro-predators (such as ringworm) and seven other species of fauna were shared by the Old and New Worlds. The authors also suggest 75 other species of bi-hemispheric plants and animals as worthy of additional study.

How did all those species get exchanged? The authors contend:

The only plausible explanation for these findings is that a considerable number of transoceanic voyages across both major oceans in both directions were completed between the seventh millennium B.C.E. and the European Age of Discovery. Scientists’ growing knowledge of early maritime technology and its accomplishments increasingly give us confidence that vessels and nautical skills capable of the long-distance travels were indeed developed by the times indicated. These voyages put a new light on the extensive Old World/New World cultural parallels that have long been considered controversial.

It has been rediscovered that 9,000 years ago residents of the Peruvian coast sailed far out into the Pacific to harvest sardines with nets made of cotton [here]. It is no great leap to conjecture that early Holocene sailors made transoceanic voyages as well.

Sorenson and Johannessen write:

Scholars concerned with the ancient culture history of the Americas generally believe that there were no culturally or biologically significant connections between the Old and New Worlds as a result of transoceanic voyaging before 1492. Using our data, from an extensive literature that hitherto has been inadequately searched, we demonstrate that fauna and flora were extensively shared between the Old and New Worlds before Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, directly contradicting the prevailing position. This is seen in the seven tables in this book.

The only plausible explanation for this bi-hemispheric distribution is that those shared organisms moved across the oceans via intentional voyages that took place during the eight millennia or more preceding Columbus. This book presents, explains, and documents the evidence for our position. We believe students of the past are now obliged to adopt a new paradigm for the role of long-distance sea communication in world history and culture.

We here at W.I.S.E. are fond of paradigm busting; it’s in our nature to question the prevailing theories. In addition, we know Carl Johannessen personally, and go out to lunch with him now and again, and have listened to his arguments, and have huge respect for him.

Dr. Carl Johannessen is professor emeritus of biogeography at the University of Oregon. He earned his Ph.D. in geography from the University of California at Berkeley, studying under the legendary Carl O. Sauer. He is the author of The Vegetation of the Willamette Valley [here] as well as innumerable other scientific works. In his eighties now, Dr. Johannessen knows everybody who is anybody in historical geography, and is still a raconteur, story-teller, and teacher of sharp wit and great good humor. His students worshipped him.

Dr. John L. Sorenson is emeritus professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University, where he founded work in that discipline in the 1950s. He holds a M. S. degree from the California Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA. He served as chair of the department of anthropology for eight years at BYU before retiring in 1986. Since then, he has returned to his early interests in Mesoamerican archaeology and transoceanic contacts, as well as sociocultural anthropology with emphasis on its applications to problems of modern society.

Both men have made many research trips to India, China, Europe, the Middle East, Polynesia, and Latin America in pursuit of evidence in the field and in the literature on the distribution of plants (domesticates and weeds) and animals transferred long distances by humans. Their work on that topic includes the use of DNA and other technological processes.

In other words, World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 is not a fanciful account, but a product of rigorous research and intensive scholarly study.

World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 is available at iUniverse [here] for a very reasonable price. Please purchase a copy, and I not saying that (just) because I owe Dr. Johannessen a lunch. It is a paradigm busting book, and will expand your world view in fascinating and satisfactory ways.

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