1491: The Origin of Food — A Mesoamerica Excerpt

I’m nearly through Charles Mann’s “1491” — an extraordinary, powerful testimony to the survival and skill of native American people who, archeologists have posited, have lived in the Americas for at least 32,000 years. When most of Europe was covered in ice and uninhabitable, North and South America were populous and thriving. I’m discovering so much that I did not know because it was never taught in school: the diseases of influenza and small pox were responsible for wiping out 90% of the Indian population making it easy for the European conquerors to overcome any resistance; waves of migration from Asia probably occurred through Beringa (a swath of land from Alberta, Canada, fanning down into Washington State) and along the coastal areas of the Americas. Sea-going, hide covered canoes could have traveled from North America to the farthest tip of South America in a 10-15 year span. Indians were the world’s first mathematicians, architects, astronomers, and cultivators, and it is useful for us to reflect on the enormous impact this has had on the world as we examine the superiority myths that our western culture and history perpetuate.
Here is an excerpt from the book that I want to share with you:

“Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed 3/5 of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astronomy, and mathematics, including the zero.”

Perhaps we would treat the Mexican farm or construction worker with greater respect if there was a greater knowledge and appreciation for the cultural history of her or his native Mexico. Perhaps there would be less fervor to build a fence and strengthen the border if we acknowledged the cultural assets of immigrants. Perhaps we could build a bridge rather than a barrier that would create collaborations and exchange.

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