Columbian Exchange: 1492 fallout explained

A number of years ago a ladies-who-lunch type of group asked me to provide a lecture for Columbus Day.  I suppose they expected a whitewashed, ‘Caucasians Discovered The World’ piece.  That is not what they got.  To their credit, they listened and they learned.  I have since presented this lecture for a few other groups, and here it is for you guys to enjoy as well.  This was originally cobbled together from a lecture I gave in my American Indian History class, and it was inspired many, many years ago by a fantastic course I took during my undergrad years on imperialism.  The first time I read Alfred Crosby, I felt like all the little pieces of ‘colonial’ history were clicking into place.  Much thanks to Chet DeFonso, my former professor and advisor, and still and always my friend.  He has never failed to inspire and encourage me, for over twenty years.  This lecture is almost entirely his fault.


Before 1492, we couldn’t talk about “world history” at all; we could only talk about the histories of separate regions.  Columbus changed all of that.


Divergent Evolution

When the continents drifted apart millions of years ago, separating the Americas from Eurasia and Africa, it brought about divergent evolution—the development of different species, as the continents (and their contents) were isolated one from another.  This occurs when a group from a specific population–in this case, the population of the ancient supercontinent, or Pangaea–develops into a new species.  In order to adapt to various environmental conditions, the two groups develop into distinct species due to differences in the demands driven by their environmental circumstances.

While some similarities remained between the flora and fauna of the Old and New Worlds, such as the existence of jaguars in South America and leopards in Africa, divergent evolution also resulted in entirely original species for each of the continents.  The rattlesnake of the Americas has no similar European species, nor does the camel of Eurasia have an American counterpart.

Beginning with the cargo accompanying Columbus’ second journey to the Americas, the movement of explorers and colonists after 1492 from Old to New World began the reversal, in small part, of this divergence.  After millions of years of divergent evolution humming along on its own, human behavior set into motion what became an enormous reversal in geographical biodiversification.

The Columbian Exchange is a term coined by historian Alfred Crosby.  Columbian Exchange refers to the exchange of crops, animals, disease and technology between the Old World and the New World in the decades following Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492. Sometimes called the Triangle Trade, this concept includes Europe, the Americas, and Africa in a three-pronged swap of flora, fauna, foods, technologies, and ideas. Not to mention people.

This exchange can be organized under four categories:  disease, animals, plants, and people.



Native Americans had exactly ONE response to the arrival of Europeans: death.  Native Americans suffered a 90% mortality rate upon the arrival of Europeans, and that was mainly due to disease.

The spread of infectious disease in the Americas was so devastating mostly because the Western hemisphere was isolated, biologically, from Europe’s pathogens, and the Americas just did not have much in the way of infectious diseases prior to 1492.

Prior to the coming of the Europeans, the New World only had a few infectious diseases, perhaps in part because the Americas were populated much later, and the cities were newer than those of the Old World.  More importantly, the Americas had far fewer domesticated herd animals, which are among the greatest sources of disease-carrying microorganisms. Influenza, for example, originates in barnyard animals such as pigs.

Smallpox, measles, malaria, mumps, yellow fever, cholera, typhus, chicken pox, bubonic plague, and influenza were all new to the Americas.

Secondary effects of disease in the Americas were numerous, as well.  For example, the deaths of Aztec and Incan rulers set off wars, which eased the spread of disease, as we all know the best way to spread germs is via hand to hand combat.

Plus, leaders kept dying.  The Incan leader Huayna Capac succumbed to smallpox before the Spanish Conquistador Pizarro even arrived!  This led to a great battle for succession amongst his sons, eventually won by Atahualpa, who was then captured and killed by Pizarro.  Without that war for succession, the Incas would have had much better chances against the Spaniards, as the Spanish numbers were comparatively small.

The same thing happened to the Aztecs:  Moctezuma was the nephew of a more powerful king who died of smallpox, leaving a weak leader in his place, which provided an opening for some of the smaller states in the Aztec Empire to revolt and aid the Spanish in the defeat of the Aztecs.

Another secondhand effect of the introduction of disease was starvation.  There simply weren’t enough people left standing to get food to keep themselves alive.  Malnutrition, then, left people more vulnerable to disease.  Smallpox was the most deadly of transmittable diseases brought to the Americas.  This pathogen sometimes took down so many adults simultaneously within a community that deaths by starvation numbered nearly as high as those from the disease.  In some cases, entire tribes were rendered extinct.

The one and only disease that spread from New World to Old World, usually via sailors and explorers, was syphilis.  It quickly made its way into the upper classes of European society, and amongst the infected were Gauguin, Nietzche, and the famously infertile Tudor family, who all suffered from syphilis.  The effects of this, of course, paled in comparison to smallpox in the Americas.

However, the New World provided tobacco to the Old World.  Cigarettes were handed out to American soldiers during World War II, and more soldiers who started smoking during the war died eventually from smoking than died from the war. Slow moving revenge for smallpox. Well done, New World.



All other purposes aside, the main reason Europeans came to the Americas was to eat—abundant land for crops and animals was highly appealing.

American animals like llamas and guinea pigs never really caught on in Eurasia, but European animals coming to the Americas were revolutionary.  Prior to Columbus, the Americas had no horses, donkeys, pigs, cattle, goats, sheep, or chickens.  Pigs breed really quickly, and eat anything, which utterly remade the food supply in the Americas.  De Soto brought 13 pigs with him when he arrived in Florida in 1539.  By the time of his death three years later, there were 700 pigs.

Large European animals changed the nature of work in the Americas.  Before the Columbian Exchange, the largest beast of burden was the llama, and at best it carried 100 lbs.  This meant that for the long distance travel that the Inca engaged in regularly, the primary transportation was on foot.

The Europeans brought the horse, which was a game changer for Native American culture.  The introduction of horses enabled many Plains tribes to develop entirely nomadic lifestyles, traveling and hunting by horse.

The Comanche became known for their superior horsemanship, and are known for this skill even in our modern world.  The horse was so valuable to the Plains tribes’ daily lives that horses were used as currency between tribe members and from tribe to tribe, and the possession of a horse or more was their primary signifier of prestige.

Oxen with their plows enabled large-scale cultivation, heretofore unknown in the Americas.  This obviously allowed for greater food production.

There were much fewer large mammals that were native to the New World that could be tamed. Buffalo, the primary large American mammal, are still not domesticated.



While Old World animals and diseases totally reshaped the New World, it was New World plants that had the biggest impact on Eurasia.

Europe gave us wheat and grapes—useful for Catholic mass, to be sure—but American plants radically changed the lives and cuisines of millions of Europeans, Asians, and Africans.

Imagine Indian and Thai curries without hot peppers; Italian food without tomatoes; or Belgium with no chocolate!  Much of what we perceive to be typical European food was unheard of prior to the Columbian Exchange.  New World crops foreign to Eurasia and Africa before Columbus arrived in the Americas also include: corn, beans, potatoes, avocados, peanuts, squash, pumpkin, manioc.

The abundance of food influx from New World crops led to a planet-wide population explosion.  The world population doubled between 1650 and 1850.

Potatoes and corn grow in soil that Old World crops cannot survive in.  Consuming primarily potatoes, the Irish more than doubled their population between 1754 and 1845, when the potato famine it.


Side note:

In 1847, roughly 15 years after their forced removal from their ancestral lands in the east, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma heard about what was happening in Ireland, and perhaps they saw an echo of what had happened to them during the Trail of Tears.  Despite their impoverished situation, the Choctaw took up a collection and sent it, via an aid agency, to Ireland.  The Irish people never forgot their generosity, and a huge plaque still hangs prominently in the airport in Dublin to honor the Choctaw people.


So, manioc and cassava went to Africa, the sweet potato went to China and Japan, and corn became the primary ingredient in animal feed around the world.


African Crop Exchange

 The European colonization of the Americas led to the establishment of plantation slavery in the New World, spurring the Atlantic slave trade. This transfer of unwilling migrants from Africa to the Americas had another, unintended effect: a transfer of crops across the ocean between Africa and the Americas, creating another leg in the Columbian Exchange. Slave ships en route to the Americas were provisioned with African food crops, and these crops, upon their establishment in the New World, dramatically influenced American cuisine.  Typical African foods supplied to slave ships included yams, African rice, pearl millet, sesame, sorghum, and tamarind. It was believed that slaves fed familiar foods were more likely to survive the ocean voyage.

New World crops made their way to the west coast of Africa in the first decades after 1492, beginning with corn, and followed shortly thereafter by manioc, sweet potatoes, capsicum peppers, and others. Corn, as it is a high-yield crop, quickly became a standard cereal crop grown along Africa’s west coast, in order to supply slave ships.

South Carolina had, by 1690, established rice as its primary export crop. In order to establish this economy, plantation owners requested seeds from ship captains, and the result was the introduction of seeds from all over the globe, including a red rice from Africa. African slaves working the plantations planted the same red rice in their garden plots for their own consumption.



With the Columbian Exchange, we had the exchange of people. This was largely going in one direction, as Europeans and Africans (the latter mostly against their will) moved to the Americas, repopulating the New World following the disease and devastation that came with colonization.

Europe’s population had been cut by 1/3 – ½ by plague during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  Better food products from the New World allowed Europe’s population to grow by leaps and bounds, putting pressure on the continent, causing more people to move to the Americas for land and food.


In Conclusion…

So there were our three categories: disease, food, and people.  The bottom line is, the Columbian Exchange devastated the population of the Americas; led to widespread slavery of Africans; allowed for a worldwide population increase.  And as a result of the Columbian Exchange, fewer people have starved since 1492, but the diversity of life on earth has diminished dramatically, and planting crops where they don’t belong has hurt the environment.

Via man’s meddling, says Alfred Crosby, humanity ‘has killed off more species of life forms in the last 400 years than the usual processes of evolution might kill off in a million years.’

Recipe: New World Brownies

This recipe combines some wonderful New World ingredients.  I have been making these to accompany my lectures for years.  Enjoy!

  1. 2C unbleached flour
  2. 2C sugar
  3. 1/2C cocoa
  4. 1 tsp baking powder
  5. 1/2 tsp salt
  6. 1/2 tsp habanero powder
  7. 1C coffee
  8. 1C veg oil
  9. 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  10. 1/2 tsp jamaican rum

Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.

Mix remaining ingredients separately, then add to bowl of dry ingredients. 

Stir until well blended. Pour into a 9 x 13 pan. Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool ten minutes before cutting. 










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