Monday, February 15, 2010

BOOK REVIEW - World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492:

Sorenson, John L., and Carl L. Johannessen,
2009 World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492, iUniverse, Inc., New York

This very interesting book is essentially about evidence of pre-Columbian contact across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The authors find evidence in the distribution of flora and fauna found on opposite sides of the ocean. The assumption is that there had to have been a vector which caused this distribution because natural causes do not seem to be a totally satisfactory answer.

The obvious question right now would be what possible connection can that have with anything we are interested in on RockArtBlog? Well, in the study of rock art we still have to deal with the epigraphy question. Were some rock art symbols or inscriptions created by visitors from across the sea? Any information about trans-oceanic contact prehistorically potentially has bearing on this subject.

Temple sculpture holding an ear of maize, Somnathpur,
India, 11th - 13th cent., Fig. 1, p. 489,World Trade and
Exchanges Before 1492. Photo: Carl L. Johannessen.

Co-author Carl Johannessen pointed out to this writer that in their book they have recorded “13 plants that came into the Americas and 84 plants left the Americas for the Asian and other tropical and subtropical zones in the Euro-African realm.” If this is, in fact, correct that would represent thirteen opportunities for the external influences which are central to the epigrapher’s theories to come into contact with native peoples of the Americas. Indeed a larger number than this 13 could be assumed because a number of the examples that went from the Americas to the Old World could have been taken back by parties that had originated in the Old World and were returning home after a voyage that had reached the Americas.

I do not question that there was pre-Columbian contact between the Old World and the New World. Since the 1960 discovery of L'Anse aux Meadows (dated to approximately 1000 AD) on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador we have had proof of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact by the Norse. There are rumors of Eskimos paddling their kayaks into the Thames River, stories of the large Chinese exploration fleets of the early 15th century, and the recent theories of Smithsonian archaeologist Dr. Dennis Stanford who postulates trans-Atlantic contact between the prehistoric Solutrean culture of Europe and the Clovis culture in North America.

What Sorenson and Johannessen have done is provide a large body of evidence of possible trans-oceanic contact based upon the evidence of flora and fauna found on both sides of oceans, and of diseases and parasites that are likewise found on both sides of oceans but which should not have been able to pass over the Bering land bridge because of the restrictions of the cold valve which assumes that a person weakened by disease would not have survived the trek across the arctic from Siberia through Alaska to carry that disease to the population of the Americas (and if they did not walk in through Beringia they must have sailed in across the Atlantic or Pacific ocean). Other evidence toward this conclusion is provided by the facts that some of these diseases do not occur in North America (considered unlikely if the disease had been carried across North America in either direction, and that many of the parasitic organisms require residence in warm, moist soil during a portion of their life cycle prior to transferring to a new host and these conditions were not available in Northern latitudes.

What is most admirable about this volume is that instead of citing a few facts and building them into a huge theoretical edifice, the authors have given us relatively few pages (90) of explanation and conclusions, and a huge amount of data. They have not allowed themselves to be sidetracked into speculating on the “who”, they have restricted themselves to the what. They have provided 396 pages of Appendixes in which they cite thousands of sources. Perhaps the best illustration of this is their section (pages 361-78) on Zea mays – Indian corn. They include some fifty sources on facts and data pertaining to evidence on the question of pre-Columbian distribution of corn in the Old World. Instead of telling us what we should believe, they give us the data and trust us to decide for ourselves. Their very extensive bibliography fills 64 pages, and they have even included a 10 page Index of Authors, both of which will be invaluable to researchers. Their 16 illustrations show visual evidence of this distribution of flora and fauna including Figure 1 (above) showing an Indian sculpture from between the 11th and 13th centuries of an Apsara holding what can only be interpreted as an ear of corn (maize).

So what have I decided for myself? As I said above I did not deny the fact of pre-Columbian contact, I just discounted it. I assume that some pre-Columbian contact beyond L’anse aux Meadows took place between the old and new worlds. My doubt has centered more on questions of transfer of culture in amounts that could lead to large numbers of inscriptions in foreign languages on the rocks in the interior of North America.

After reading World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 no-one should be able to categorically deny the possibility of such pre-Columbian cross-ocean contact without disproving or explaining away literally thousands of pieces of data assembled by the authors, a daunting task indeed!

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