Mar 16 2021225 Los San Patricios

The Mexican-American War was not fought for good reasons. The war was one of imperial and expansionist ambition and territorial expansion, and even in the 1840s many Americans at the time knew they were on the wrong side of history. Among the Americans who knew that the U.S. probably shouldn’t wage a war of aggression on its neighbor were a battalion of mostly Irish immigrants who became known as Saint Patrick’s Battalion. They defected from the American to Mexican side of the conflict, battled against the American invaders, and are now remembered as heroes in both Mexico and Ireland.

Nov 25 201558 Malthus, Borlaug, and Feeding the World

The planet Earth holds over seven billion humans. Somehow, against all manner of predictions to the contrary, we feed all of them. This would have astounded Thomas Malthus who, in 1798, predicted that humanity was careening toward a demographic catastrophe, despite the world population still being under a billion at that time.

Part of the reason why humanity can now feed itself is because of agricultural advances in the 20th century known as the Green Revolution. Advances in crop yields, land use, pesticides, herbicides, and general efficiency have given us a food supply unlike anything that our ancestors knew. At the forefront of the Green Revolution was a biologist named Norman Borlaug who developed a type of semi-dwarf wheat that saved an estimated billion lives.


Aug 06 201542 An Invention of Writing! Maybe.

Humans have invented writing not once, not twice, but three times. Ancient Sumeria, China, and Mesoamerica all invented the written word independent of each other. In the case of Mesoamerican writing, there’s some ambiguity about when and who made it. Most experts agree that by around 500 BCE Zapotec peoples had created a writing system, but there’s some debate about whether or not the Olmec, an even older civilization, were the first in Mesoamerica to invent writing. One artifact, the 3,000 year old Cascajal Block, suggests that the Olmecs did, in fact, have a writing system. The Block is strewn with glyphs in a language that nobody speaks or understands, and is, potentially, the oldest piece of writing in the Western Hemisphere.

olmec writing


Related Links:

For more on misconceptions about Olmecs, check out Episode Three of this show, Incorrect Ideas About Olmecs.

More about the Runamo Inscription, the supposed ancient Viking runes that turned out to just be cracks in rock.

Dec 24 201410 The Habsburg and Juarez, Part Two

Maximilian’s rule over Mexico was never truly solidified or legitimized, and the would-be emperor faced relentless resistance from liberal Mexican forces led by reformist president Benito Juarez. Eventually the emperor (always just a puppet of the French) would lose his foreign backing, get holed up in a siege, get captured, and eventually die ingloriously in front of a firing squad.

The painting below by Edouard Manet shows the execution of Maximilian and two of his generals by Juarez’s republican forces.

Edouard Manet 022

Related Links:

The New York Times in 1865 on the Second Mexican Empire.

The New York Times’ Disunion Blog on the Battle of Puebla and Mexican foreign policy in the Second Empire.

The Grey River Argus on the Queretaro.

A photo purporting to show the execution of Maximilian and two of his generals.

Dec 18 201409 The Habsburg and Juarez, Part One

One of the most definitive and dramatic struggles against European monarchy happened in Mexico. France attempted to install Maximilian, a member of Austrian royal family as a puppet emperor of Mexico in the 1860s. The would-be emperor, though, was resisted by one of Mexico’s most successful and well-known presidents, Benito Juarez. The liberal leader led an opposition government, fought against both foreign powers and Mexican conservatives, and destroyed the Second Mexican Empire.

The 1867 painting beleow by Cesare Dell’Acqua, depicts Maximilian accepting the Mexican throne in Trieste, Italy.

Dell'Acqua Ernennung Maximilians zum Kaiser Mexikos

Related Links:
Political Legitimation and Maximilian’s Second Empire in Mexico, 1864-1867

Embracing a Sutable Past: Independence Celebrations Under Mexico’s Second Empire, 1864-6

Maximilian and His Mexican Empire

Some images of the flag and coat of arms of Maximilian’s Mexico

Nov 06 201403 Incorrect Ideas About Olmecs

The Olmecs are the oldest known Mesoamerican civilization, and we know little about them compared to, say, the Mayans or Aztec. Several people, though, have made a few outlandish claims about who the Olmecs were, and where they came from.

San Lorenzo Monument 3


Related Links:

This article from Cultural Anthropology is the definitive takedown of Van Sertima’s Olmec claims, in great detail.

A more readable debunking of claims regarding African and Chinese Olmec origins.

And, just for fun, one of the best 80s cartoon openers ever.