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.

Arrival of the Spaniards

Date: 1520
Owner: University of New Mexico Press
Source Type: Images


Cinchona Plant

Date: 1791
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


This scientific illustration shows the various parts (leaves, stem, seed pods, etc.) of the cinchona plant, a species native to South America. As early as 1638, Europeans noted that the bark of this plant could cure and prevent malaria, a disease that was prevalent throughout the world, though especially common and deadly in the tropics. The bark was (and is) most commonly used to make quinine, an effective drug against malaria and the essential ingredient in tonic water to the present day.

The cinchona plant is representative of the American flora and it was widely coveted in Europe for medicinal and, consequently, economic purposes. Spain's eighteenth century Bourbon monarchs sought to cultivate it for export to the rest of Europe as a source of revenue, as well as a much needed medicine, which would exemplify both Spain's modernity and its Enlightened benevolence. Nevertheless, the Spanish Monarchy and then the independent republics of northern South America would keep cinchona production a closely guarded monopoly well into the 1800s. It was not until 1865 that someone finally managed to smuggle cinchona seeds out of the continent and cultivate them in the Dutch Pacific (an episode proving that the Columbian exchange of biota was and is an ongoing process). Once this theft made quinine widely available, it became a crucial factor that enabled Europeans to colonize the hitherto deadly interiors of Africa and Southeast Asia. It is an interesting coincidence that an American plant made available by European conquest of the New World made possible later European conquests of other continents.

CITATION: Bordiga, Benedetto. La Kina Kina. 1791. Accession no. 98-75. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.



Ear of Maize

Date: 1556
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


This sixteenth century drawing of American maize shows the plant in scientific detail. Maize, along with protein-rich beans, squash, and--to a lesser extent--peppers, formed what has been called the American Indian food complex, a combination of staple foods that was far more nutritious than what most sixteenth century Europeans consumed. In lieu of the livestock that was key to European diets, this food complex supported both the great cities of the Aztec and Incan empires (with the added staple of potatoes in the latter) as well as the smaller mobile villages scattered throughout North America in lieu of the livestock that was key to the European diet. Indians supplemented their diets with game such as deer, turkey, and fish. This diverse and healthy diet contributed to the Indians' impressive height and build that was noted by many of the earliest European explorers, themselves (as evidenced by skeletons found in Europe) usually squat, malnourished, and crooked-boned as a result of dietary deficiencies.

Maize, along with other key elements of the food complex, spread throughout the world since 1492, improving the health of people and (by virtue of crop diversification) the soil of nearly every continent. Maize and manioc, a type of South American squash, are now staples in Africa, and China is the world's leading producer of the sweet potato, another New World crop. One surprising element of the food complex's migration is that Eastern, not Western, Europe has taken most to New World crops. According to historian Jean Andrews, the food complex spread from the West Indies along Portuguese trade routes around Africa to Mozambique, India, and the Ottoman Empire, from which it made it to the Balkans as early as the 1530s (Andrews 1993). To this day, southeastern Europeans enjoy the diverse diet afforded by maize and the food complex, and turkey has even become a popular dish.

CITATION: Corn, 1556. Color woodcut from Giovanni Battista Ramusio's 'Delle Navigazioni e Viaggi,' Venice, Italy, 1556. Courtesy of the Granger Collection, NY.  ID: 0009594.



Europeans with Syphilis

Date: 1500
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


This early sixteenth century source shows a woman and a man in Europe infected with syphilis and doctors trying to treat them with mercury. Historians of epidemics have long debated whether syphilis, the venereal disease caused by the spirochete Treponema pallidum, was exclusively of New World origin or whether the strains brought back to Europe as early as 1493 mixed with similar Old World diseases to create a more deadly form. Regardless of its exact progeny, the late fifteenth century spread of syphilis did occur directly in the wake of 1492 and reflects the novel interconnectedness of the post-Columbian world.

Mercury, which the doctors in this image are giving to these patients, was the most common treatment for syphilis in Europe, administered topically on sores and also internally in the form of pills. The extremely toxic quick silver did indeed do much to remove the pustules of syphilis, but it often killed the patient as well. The classical medical theories of this period endorsed the idea that diseases were caused by an imbalance of the humors, and syphilis was believed to be the result of salivary excess. One symptom of mercury poisoning is extreme drooling, up to several pints a day, and this was erroneously seen as proof of mercury's healing power. Although the shortcomings of humoral theory seem obvious today, it was Europe's best contemporary paradigm for attempting to understand and cope with a new and unprecedented disease.

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

CITATION: Medecins soignant des syphilitiques. Wood engraving from Aesculape. Published 6 June 1931. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. M0006193.



Mexican Smallpox Victims

Date: 1557
Owner: University of New Mexico Press
Source Type: Images


This drawing from the Florentine Codex is one of the earliest images of Native Americans infected with smallpox. The Aztec authors of the codex described how smallpox caused many deaths soon after the Spaniards arrived, not only because of the disease itself but also because so few remained healthy enough to feed and tend the sick that many more died of starvation. Among those who survived the plague, many were left with disfiguring scars from the pustule,s and some were blinded after the pox spread to their eyes.

The first appearance of smallpox among American Indians was on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), possibly the result of forcing the natives to resettle closer to Spanish population centers. From there, the epidemic spread to other isles,and by the mid sixteenth century, almost 90% of the Caribbean Indian population had died. In 1520, smallpox came to the densely populated areas of Mesoamerica, where it devastated the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and many other urban areas. Between 1524 and 1527, the disease laid waste to the Indian populations of the Andes and by 1530, it was pandemic in much of Central and South America. Repeated outbreaks of smallpox throughout the 1500s, coupled with the introduction of other previously unknown pathogens, left the Indian populations of America little chance of recovery. This simple sketch is one of the most enduring and haunting images of the demise of American Indian civilization.



Native Americans Harvesting Timber

Date: 1532
Owner: New York Public Library
Source Type: Images


This 1638 engraving shows the method by which Peruvian Indians harvested wood and split timbers. Throughout the New World, lumber was an incredibly important resource because, as Europe's forests were diminishing, American wood could be used to build the ships necessary for oceanic commerce and for maintaining the colonial economic system of international trade.

Even more so than today, deforestation had immense ecological consequences because the recently cleared land became overrun by European and African plants. Some of these were intentionally cultivated, especially wheat, rice, olives, and American cash crops like tobacco, but much of the cleared land was filled by European grasses and weeds seeking to exploit new ecologial niches. This created pasture for livestock which brought further change to the ecosystem as well as a variety of new animal-born diseases.

This image is interesting because it shows the changes European conquest wrought on both natural and urban landscapes. The city in the background of this picture (Cuzco, Peru) is arranged on a rectangular grid, a pattern common throughout post- Columbian Latin America, and it is dominated by a Catholic church, itself the source of enormous cultural and political influence over Indian populations. This entire scene would have been alien to pre-1492 Americans. .Although trees were harvested prior to the conquest in much the same manner, the demand (and consequent labor coercion) intensified under Spanish rule, when lumberjacking became both more common and, probably, less pleasant.

CITATION: [Cusco, Peru]. 1638. In Phelps Stokes Collection of American Historical Prints. Digital ID: 54647. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Humanities and Social Sciences Library/ Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.



Potato Famine

Date: 1880
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This 1880 cartoon depicts the devastation done unto Ireland by the Great Potato Famine of 1845 to 1849, a severe food shortage caused by a blight on Ireland's potato crop. Ironically, potatoes were often introduced to European agriculture in the wake of earlier famines as a means of diversifying the crops and diet of Europeans yet, by the mid nineteenth century, European nations such as Hungary, Ireland, and Russia had become dependent on this New World staple.

This cartoon illustrates well the complexity of the post-Columbian world: the failure of a crop brought from America and grown in a European country led to massive European emigration, mostly to the Americas. This was just one example of the massive demographic shifts that were integral to the ongoing Columbian exchange, the most obvious of which was the forced migration of African slaves.

Despite periodic demographic declines such as the Potato Famine, the Columbian exchange was responsible for enormous long term population growth, especially among Europeans and their descendants. Yet such growth, coupled with the continuing tendency of people to travel to and settle in places far beyond their home countries, is contributing to the increasing homogenization of human kind and the environment that we inhabit. Similarly, many crop species have become increasingly homogeneous through out the world as a result of plantation agriculture, making them more susceptible to devastating pests. Prior to 1492, for example, all Native Americans from Canada to Tierra del Fuego were incredibly similar genetically, in contrast to Europeans or Africans. Ethnic and racial mixing has reduced the diversity of our genetic pool, a circumstance that makes us more vulnerable to new diseases and a less adaptable species as a whole. In Darwinian terms, we are steadily becoming equally fit to deal with new circumstances, a situation that could prove disastrous for homo sapiens in general.

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

CITATION: Nast, Thomas. "The Herald of relief from America / Th. Nast." 1 print : wood engraving. Illus. in: Harper's weekly, 1880 Feb. 28, p. 129. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, ID: LC-USZ62-103220. Original image number: cph 3c03220.



Source References

Web Sites

The Colombian Exchange: Plants, Animals, and Disease between the Old and New Worlds (National Humanities Center): Description of the enormous impact of the Columbian Exchange.

The Colombian Biological Exchange (Georgetown College): A chart depicting species that were transplanted from the Old World to the New and vice-versa.

Seeds of Change Garden  (Smithsonian Institute)


Andrews, Jean. "Diffusion of Mesoamerican Food Complex to Southeastern Europe." Geographical Review. 83: 2 (April 1993): 194-204.

Axtell, James. Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 1992.

Carney, Judith A. "African Rice in the Columbian Exchange." The Journal of African History. 42: 3 (2001): 377-396.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Cook, Noble David. Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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

Crosby, Alfred. Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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

Grafton, Anthony. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.

Hirth, Kenneth G. Trade and Exchange in Early Mesoamerica. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. New York: WW Norton & Co, 1976.

McNeil, William H. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1977.

Phillips, William D. and Carla Rahn Phillips. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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

Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Stannard, David E. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 1993.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Viola, Herman and Carolyn Margolis. Seeds of Change: a Quincentennial Commemoration. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

de Asua, Miguel. A New World Of Animals: Early Modern Europeans On The Creatures Of Iberian America. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2005. 

Films and Videos

The Columbian Exchange (WGBH, 1991)

Syphilis and Guaiacum

Date: 1500
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


This sixteenth century engraving of a household scene in the Netherlands shows a patient sick in bed with syphilis as well as a man making the treatment. The man sitting on the floor is chopping up a piece of guaiacum wood, a very hard wood found in the West Indies which was considered to be an effective cure for syphilis in the 1520s, and retained some credibility as late as the nineteenth century. Not only was the density of this wood considered proof that it had mysterious attributes, but the very fact that it came from the New World gave it special legitimacy. A prevalent belief of the sixteenth century was that nature (or God) provided cures for geographically specific diseases in the region from which the disease originated. Thus guaiacum, a New World plant, was believed efficacious against syphilis, which was seen as a New World disease.

For the first time in the history of human kind, people of all races were brought into contact with each other, and the opportunities for sexual contact were many. Although many European explorers took (often temporary) American brides, rape was also an all-too-common phenomenon of the brutal early conquest period. The soldiers, sailors, and statesmen who had sex with infected American women often traveled far and lived licentiously, spreading the disease to Europe, Asia, and Africa with incredible speed. In fact, by the time of Columbus's death in 1506, syphilis had spread to every continent save Antarctica and Australia.

The syphilis epidemic is a stark reminder of just how mobile some Europeans had become by the dawn of the sixteenth century, and that real people living real--and often scandalous--lives were the agents through which much of the post-Columbian changes occurred. Then as much as now, one's personal decisions could have profound repercussions that, intended or not, could irreversibly change the world as well as the lives of individuals spread far throughout it.

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

CITATION: A man in bed suffering from syphilis, amidst a busy domestic scene. Line engraving by P. Galle after Jan Van der Straet. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0011152.



The Suckling Faction

Date: 1641
Owner: New York Public Library
Source Type: Images


Along with diseases, crops, people, and ideas, drugs were frequently transported across the Atlantic in both directions in the years following 1492. The most devastating substance brought to Native American populations was alcohol, while American tobacco quickly became a huge part of European pharmacology and counterculture. Many of the earliest European commentators considered tobacco to be a new wonder drug, an herbal remedy that could be used in medicinal philters to cure a wide variety of ailments, including headaches, kidney pain, toothaches, parasites, scabies, burns, and wounds.

Yet botanists and others who experimented with tobacco were quick to note its effects as a psychotropic drug, especially when smoked. Along with chewing the leaves, Indians smoked tobacco through cigars and pipes and this practice was taken up in Europe by people (usually men) who were considered to be of inferior moral fiber. As seen in this broadside, tobacco use was readily associated with drinking, gambling, and foppery, and those who "drank" the smoke (to use the parlance of the times) were regarded as sinners. Several people, as early as the seventeenth century, noted that tobacco users had difficulty abstaining from the drug and that it seemed to have deleterious effects on one's humoral balance.

Tobacco did not take very long to make its way into polite society, and Europeans' demand for tobacco created yet another economic incentive (along with mining and sugar) to employ slave labor in American colonies. Tobacco plantations arose throughout the Americas and Caribbean, spreading slavery as well as monocrop agriculture.  Entire ecosystems and economies were and are based around this herb, a narcotic that had long fascinated Indians and is now used recreationally throughout the entire world.

Reference: Grafton, Anthony, with April Shelford and Nancy Siraisi. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.

CITATION: Grafton, Anthony, with April Shelford and Nancy Siraisi. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 174, fig. 4.7. The Sucklington Faction, Broadside, 1641. From The New York Public Library, Arents Tobacco Collection.



Wild Pigs

Date: 1725
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


This eighteenth century reprint of a seventeenth century drawing shows Indians hunting wild pigs in the forests of "ye continent of America." Pigs, along with horses, dogs, and cattle, were brought to the Americas as early as Columbus' second voyage in 1493, and the lush vegetation and absence of predators provided an environment in which these Old World animals could thrive. Pigs adapted to American soil very quickly, and they soon spread far beyond the limits of European human encroachment. In fact, they were so transportable and self-sufficient that early European explorers would bring an abundance of swine aboard ship simply in order to deposit them on uninhabited islands so that future settlers would have an abundant supply of pork waiting if they ever decided to settle there. Thus Native Americans often encountered (and ate) wild pigs long before they encountered Europeans, though not necessarily before they fell victim to their germs. The earliest imported pigs, like those pictured here, were related to modern swine yet far more agile and lean, and hunting them was more akin to stalking a boar than slaughtering livestock.

Their great numbers and voracious appetites for almost everything edible made pigs one of the most dynamic forces in changing the ecology of post-Columbian America. Where they cleared out forest undergrowth, European weeds (such as Kentucky bluegrass) took the place of native flora, and pigs destroyed the ecosystems that nurtured many American animals, thus dramatically reducing their populations. With the exception of humans, pigs were the most important animal in shaping modern American vegetation.

CITATION: Herrera y Tordesillas, Antonio de. 1725. The Manner of Hunting on ye Continent of America. Accession no. 07324b. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.