by, John J White III
Originally published in MES.
The book World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 by John L. Sorenson and Carl L. Johanessen is now available. Collectively it represents a slam dunk victory for the historical interpretation of cultural diffusionism over the opposing interpretation of cultural isolationism. This is a major event for the study of ancient history. Lots of blood has been lost and careers bashed since Columbus landed in 1492 C.E. and the learned world began raising questions about the origins of the Native Americans and their cultures.
The key to successful systematic studies is to ask the right question, ie, one that can be answered by the prevailing scientific methods and one whose answer resolves a serious question. The best answer for proof of cultural diffusion is the study of biological exchanges. It is a branch of archaeology, the species involved are clearly identifiable, the role of man in the diffusion process can be understood, and the remains are datable.
Thus, the question asked is “What can the study of biological exchanges tell us about the travel (navigational) history of mankind?” The answer is that man was traveling on the oceans to and from the Americas since before 7320 B.P. and continuously since then. We are speaking of tropical America, not just the opportunities provided by land bridges and ice-age ocean conditions during exclusively Paleolithic times. The implication is that cultural exchanges have occurred since before 7320 B.P.!
A biological exchange involves the following; a plant or animal (like a peanut or chicken) is native to America (or Asia) in the evolutionary sense for that species. Scientists find evidence for this species in Asia (or America) with a date that is technically valid. Then if this species cannot cross the ocean by natural means (man not involved), then man must have provided the transportation. And until modern times this means that ocean-going crafts were surely needed.
Biological exchange is not a new field, and the study concept was discussed in the 1890s. The problem has been that the Archaeology Establishment adopted an Isolationist Viewpoint in the late 19th Century and has denounced Diffusionist date as invalid without scientific investigation or proof. What the learned world does not know or entertain is “How many valid reports of biological exchange have been made?” Most of us are persuaded by the preponderance of evidence in scholarly studies.
That is where the authors, Professors Sorenson and Johannesson, enter the picture. They are bio-geographers par excellence who have made a career out of the study of biological exchange and related problems. They decided to write a complete book explaining in professional detail just how much quality data exists that proves man has been very active in traveling to and from the Americas since before 7320 B.P. This is a summary of the research of many notable bio-archaeologists worldwide.
Professor John L. Sorenson is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Brigham Young University, having taking his PhD training at UCLA. Professor Carl Johannessen is Emeritus Professor of Biogeography at the University of Oregon, having completed his PhD studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Both men have numerous publications.
In the Introduction the authors tell us that 126 organisms have definite biological exchange credentials and another 75 are very probable. This book must be read!
This exhaustive masterpiece by Mr. Sorenson & Mr. Johanessen prove plants, vegetables, fruits, nuts, grasses, etc. made it across the Pacific and Atlantic long before Columbus. Incredible scientific contribution to mankind.
Or feel free to purchase either this edition or newer edition here