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How To Celebrate Columbus Day In Three Minutes

October 7th, 2012 by Alison · 4 Comments · books

Tomorrow is Columbus Day, in honor of that explorer’s 1492 landing on the shore of what is now the Bahamas. We all studied history in high school — but did those textbooks have the benefit of recent research on North, Central and South American history? 

Celebrate Columbus Day by taking this short true-false quiz on the Americas that Columbus found more than five centuries ago.

  1. In 1491 there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe.
  2. Before the Egyptians built the pyramids, cities were already thriving in the Western Hemisphere.
  3. Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, had clean streets, running water and elaborate botanical gardens, unlike any capital in Europe at that time.
  4. Pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico developed corn by a breeding process so sophisticated that the journal Science described it as “man’s first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering.”
  5. Many tribes throughout North America routinely sculpted their environment and improved their hunting with controlled burns (i.e., fire-setting).
  6. By the time the Pilgrims landed, the majority — possibly over 90% — of  the native population had already died of smallpox and other diseases that came over from Europe.   
  7. Native Americans typically refer to themselves as Indians, rather than Native Americans.

 Answers: All the above are true.  Yes.

If your three minutes are up, good job. You can stop reading, having celebrated Columbus Day with more new knowledge about his era than probably any of your friends.

If you have more time available, plus interest, read on for the closing.

I wrote this quiz after reading a book called 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by science journalist Charles C. Mann, published in 2005. Witty, engaging and well footnoted, this work is as groundbreaking as the Pulitzer prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (on the nonfiction shelf of Books I Love). Pre-Columbus America was much more densely populated, starting much earlier in history, by people much more advanced and sophisticated, than our history books taught us. 

Much of my body of thought here at Diamond-Cut Life is about stepping outside the box of our mainstream culture. The mainstream approach to life is consumption-oriented, and not at all sustainable.We can travel outside our current culture’s box with our thinking, the wisdom and knowledge we cultivate, and also our actions, including our lifestyle choices.  A book like 1491 illustrates that many past cultures (not just our own) have risen to startling heights, and then fallen. I believe our current culture will eventually fall, too, global warming (caused mostly by heavy fossil fuel consumption) being one trigger.

But new cultures always follow fallen ones, as the centuries after Columbus illustrate (tragically, for the Native Americans). On the positive side, the general resilience of humankind means that we can carry and pass on wisdom and knowledge that our culture’s survivors can inherit. That’s why I write about things like tasty but simple food; renewable energy and energy conservation; bicycling, walking and transit as ideal transportation; self-entertainment; and cultivating joy without a lot of stuff.

This body of thought I’m developing is about as counterintuitive to the mainstream culture as the idea of sailing west to arrive in the East Indies was counterintuitive to the culture in which Columbus lived. Remember, Columbus discovered the New World by accident, as he was looking for something else. I would like to see us create a different New World, not at all by accident, one that  is life-giving and sustainable for both people and our planet.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Christina Malango

    I am at home with my family in Corvallis and we had fun doing this. thank you

  • craftygreenpoet

    1491 sounds like an interesting book, I’ll look out for it. It’s worth adding though that before Columbus, the native Americans (Indians) had hunted many large species of animals to excess.

    I have read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (and Collapse too, which I think is even better).

    • Alison

      Juliet (Ms. Poet), Thanks for pointing that out. There’s a tendency to paint the first Americans as ‘noble savages’ who lived in a pristine wilderness upon which they had no impact. That was not the reality, at all.

      I agree with you that ‘Collapse’ is an important book. It should be required reading in high schools and colleges, in my view.

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