- World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 by John L. Sorenson, Carl L. Johannessen
Given the fact that our colleague Carl Johannessen has long promoted the significance of his co-authored book on World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 I decided to arrange an extended review of it by Dr. Dorian Fuller, Professor of Archaeobotany, Institute of Archaeology, University College London. Dr. Fuller’s review is then followed by a response from Carl Johannessen.
The impact of the “Columbian exchange” from the end of the 15th century when Europeans “discovered” the Americas is writ large in most of our understandings of world history. That European sailors brought back crops such as maize, tomatoes and chilli-peppers to Europe and spread them onwards to Asia has long had a recognized major impact on food and agriculture, just as European diseases and firearms decimated native America populations and paved the way for political and religious change. There are various ways in which this Eurocentric slant on the transatlantic exchanges of the last five or so centuries has been challenged or enriched by scholarship in recent years, such as through the recognition of the impact of Mesoamerica blood sacrifices and heart imagery on Catholic heart imagery from the 16th century onwards (Kehoe 1979) or the importance of African agency and agricultural knowledge in bringing Old World tropical crops to the Americas (Carney and Rosamoff 2009). The extent of, and the agencies behind, long-distance trade and crop translocations in the Old World prior to the Columbian Exchange has seen much revision and rethinking in recent years. Rather than Indian Ocean exchanges starting in the era of “Indo-Roman” trade (Tomber 2008), we now recognize that the Romans were minor and late participants in a lively arena of cross-cultural exchanges around the Indian Ocean (Beaujard 2005; Fuller et al. 2011) in what can be seen as part of a wider “globalization” of food crops across the Old World from around 4000 years ago (Jones et al. 2011). [End Page 245]
The book under review here attempts to undermine the Eurocentric pre-eminence of the trans-Atlantic exchanges and to challenge the orthodoxy of 1492 as the pivotal date when the New World met the Old World. It does so by shifting the geographical frame of exchanges mainly to the Pacific and by postulating a long prehistory of some millennia for those exchanges, back to at least the third or fourth millennium BC. The claim of this book is that “a large number of plant and animal species were transported across the ocean to or from the Americas before 1492” (p. 81), and that “those shared organisms moved across the oceans via intentional voyages that took place during the eight millennia or more preceding Columbus” (p. 2). The book makes this argument through a wide ranging cataloguing of taxa allegedly translocated between the Old and New World prior to and without European agency. Such taxa include plants (both wild and domesticated), animals (mostly domesticated), and diseases. Most of the book (some 360 pages) consists of appendices in which each species is summarized, including extensive quotation from secondary sources and brief citation of primary archaeological evidence without sufficient detail for the reader to make any critical assessment of data quality. Instead the reader is invited to believe along with the authors that all claims are genuine, accurate in taxonomy, chronology and biogeography of origins. However, no coherent argument from evidence is provided to bring along a reader who is prone to disbelieve or question these claims. While the first 90 pages summarize the evidence from the appendices to assert that the evidence for prehistoric trans-Pacific contacts is overwhelming, involving 55 to170 plant taxa (a number that is not consistent between chapters and also depends on which cases the reader regards as secure or plausible), 7 animals and 19 micro-organisms that cause disease. There are 15 pages of illustrations, all...