If one thought, as I admit I did, that a book with “Silk” and “History” in its title would be (yet another) about China and the Silk Road, one will soon be disabused. Aarathi Prasad, a biologist and science writer, opens with the Lepidoptera floors at London’s Natural History museum. Silk, argues Prasad, has a much more complicated story that the conventional one of China and the Chinese silkworm Bombyx mori: “there is not just one silk, there is not just one story of silk. Not one road, one people who found it, nor who made it.” Indeed, some of the earliest silk cocoons ever found, from Xiyin Cun some two hundred kilometres west of Shuanghuaishu and dating from 3500 BCE, aren’t Bombyx mori at all.

The exploration of the Himalaya contributed vastly to scientific knowledge. From botanical discoveries, to understanding of how human bodies work at altitude, to pioneering the use of new scientific equipment, the mountain range had an immense importance. Yet its hostile environment meant that this knowledge was not easily gained. Moreover these scientific endeavors were by no means apolitical. Empire and imperialism was a central aspect of these activities. Despite the notional purity of science and scholarship, these western surveyors, naturalists and scientists were taking part in the imperial project. 

Asia has recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, been the source of some of the most exciting, and bemusing, discoveries in human evolution. In the context of the history of human evolution, or even the history of the study of human evolution, “recent” is a relative term; these developments date back to the first years of the new century when the discovery of Homo floresiensis, “Flores Man” aka “the hobbit”, put Asia back on the evolutionary front burner.

In 1876, Englishman Henry Wickham smuggled rubber tree seeds out of the Amazon ultimately dooming Brazil’s rubber boom. The stolen seeds were successfully germinated, leading to the British establishing rubber plantations in Malaya that broke Brazil’s monopoly and sent the states of Amazonas and Pará into rapid decline. The Opera House in Manaus, capital of Amazonas, is a melancholy reminder of the luxury rubber profits once afforded. Much as rubber seeds once were, genetically-engineered (or modified, ie GM) corn seeds have become valuable enough in the 21st century that some will resort to anything to get them. 

China or India? India or China? Maybe Chindia? Anyone who has ever spent much time thinking about the future of the Asia or any particular country or company’s relationship to it, has probably asked this question, and more than once. Several terms, such as “Asia- Pacific” or the newly-launched “Indo-Pacific”, carry this question within it.