Columbian Exchange (1492-1800)

Picture a burrito. Its delicious interior, filled with pinto beans, beef, lettuce, tomatoes, chili peppers, avocado, cheese, corn, and rice, is wrapped up in an oversized tortilla made of wheat flour. This filling and easily portable meal can be considered the quintessential dish of the Columbian exchange, the transfer of biota between the Old and New Worlds that began in 1492 and continues to the present day. The beans, tomatoes, peppers, avocado, and corn all hail from the Americas; the beef, cheese, and lettuce have their provenance in Europe; and rice culture was brought by African slaves, themselves imported against their will. The flour tortilla imitates the smaller maize tortillas of Mesoamerica, but has more tensilary strength and reflects the traditional European preference for wheat as a staple grain. Even the name burrito (little donkey) comes from an animal imported to the New World by Europeans during the colonial era.

The Columbian Exchange has had a large impact on the plants, animals, foods, and human populations of every corner of the earth. After the New World was "discovered" in 1492, all manners of life were sent, intentionally and unintentionally, both directions across the Atlantic and on to the rest of the world. Although the cultural developments of the colonial era were significant, the biological ones were staggering.

According to historian Alfred W. Crosby, European colonization of the New World depended not on their guns, steel, and often brutal policies, but on the forms of life that they brought with them. The most critical of these were microscopic germs that devastated the indigenous population; smallpox, which halved populations throughout the New World, is the most well known of these "virgin soil" epidemics (Crosby 1972). The first outbreak of smallpox in Mesoamerica (from 1520-1521) killed one-third to one-half of the indigenous population. Yet, as Suzanne Austin Alchon argues, the Indians were decimated because the smallpox epidemic was followed in quick succession by measles, bubonic plague, influenza, and typhus, leaving no time for the population to recover before being stricken once more. Furthermore, the wars, enslavement, and demoralization that often characterized New World colonialism did much to exacerbate the massive population decreases suffered by Native Americans (Alchon 2003).

Larger organisms, like people, plants, and animals also made their way across the Atlantic. As seen in the source "The Arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico," wheat, pigs, horses, cattle, and ship rats were all imported to the New World, where they thrived and changed the Americas forever. Indeed, much of the New World today might be unrecognizable to someone who lived here in 1491. Landscapes like the one depicted in the source "Native Americans Harvesting Timber" were shaped by European animals (including humans), cultural influence, and economic demands. Maize, turkeys, potatoes, tomatoes, various beans, squash, and peppers all traveled East to Europe and Africa, as well as the Middle East and Asia. American diseases, most notably syphilis, spread even faster than foodstuffs and were rampant throughout the Old World before the end of the fifteenth century.

Although the exchange of New and Old World germs had the most immediate impact, the transfer of crops and livestock proved more important in the long term because, since the early sixteenth century, the human population in general has skyrocketed. Crosby attributed this phenomenon largely to the fact that the world's food supply has increased and improved since 1492. Crops native to America have forestalled famines and added much needed nutrients and variety to cuisines throughout the world (Crosby 1972). Whether such large-scale human success has counterbalanced the immense human and cultural toll wrought by the encounter between Europeans and Native Americans can be debated. Chew on that next time you eat a burrito.

Questions for further exploration:

1. Although New World plants, animals, and diseases did make an impact in Europe, Asia, and Africa, the changes wrought in the Americas were far more drastic. What factors (plant, animal, and/or human) affected the change most and why?

2. Consider the sources on diseases resulting from the Columbian exchange, that in which a Native American artist depicts the newly introduced disease of smallpox and those in which European artists illustrate the new disease of syphilis. How did each civilization (European and American) attempt to deal with these novel crises, in terms of treating the new disease and explaining its cause?

3. Several new animals came to the Americas in the sixteenth century; some impacted social and political life, like horses, while others had a larger impact on the environment. What are some of the lasting environmental effects of introducing animals like pigs, cattle, and rats?

4. The source "Potato Famine" relates how a staple crop grown in Europe, though native to the Americas, can lead to massive demographic shifts. Consider some other large-scale migrations across the Atlantic since 1492. To what extent were these population shifts (themselves a legacy of the Columbian exchange) the result of developments that the initial exchange unleased? 

5. American plants have fascinated Europeans since 1492 as sources of food (maize and potatoes), medicine (cinchona and guaiacum), and profit (timber, tobacco, and cacao). Considering the American plants in the sources as well as others, how did European attitudes to American flora change from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries? (Look to other topics to help elucidate shifts in perspective, including "Early Colonial Science," "Colonial Enlightenment," "Humboldt and Latin America," "Scientific Expeditions," and "Botany").

Further reading:

Alchon, Suzanne Austin. A Pest in the Land: New World Epidemics in Global Perspective. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

Cook, Noble David. Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Crosby, Alfred W., Jr., Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: WW Norton & Co, 1999.

Quetel, Claude. History of Syphilis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.