When European explorers first arrived in tropical America they encountered an assemblage of flora and fauna that was mostly unknown to them. They met iguanas that matched their idea of a flying serpent, but without wings. In the tropical rivers they found flesh-eating piranhas and eels that provide a nasty jolt of electricity. They had seen monkeys, but not monkeys that could swing by their tails. The awe-struck explorers saw strange birds such as the toucan with its enormous bill and the Andean condor that seemed far too big to actually fly. They found blood-drinking bats and the immense anaconda.
In the more temperate latitudes animals were less alien than those in the tropics, but still different from those in Europe. Coronado described a cattle-like animal (the bison) as numerous as fish in the sea and having humps like camels. “They (bison) have very long beards like goats and when they are running they throw their heads back with the beard dragging the ground.”
In 1520 Philippus Paracelcus wrote that no one could actually believe that all this great diversity of animals was of the same creation that produced Adam and Eve. His only explanation, close to heresy in his time, was that “God hath made a new creation of beasts.”
The great differences in plants in the New World presented a particular problem for the Europeans. They were accustomed to staple grains such as wheat, barley, and oats. Not only were they not found in the Americas, these grains would not even grow well in the humid tropics. In the West Indies and the wet lowlands of the mainland the Spaniard had to import wheat or eat bread made from manioc (cassava) flour. Hence manioc became the new staple carbohydrate for the European in the tropics. The other important new food for the Europeans was maize, which grows well in the wet lowlands and in the highlands of tropical America, plus beans, pumpkins, and potatoes. Adaptation to these new foods became essential in order to send bands of soldiers to the interior to explore and capture new wealth.
One great concern for the Spaniards in the tropics was the lack of grapes for making wine. The importance of wine in their diet made this a serious matter. The lack of local wine-making also concerned communion wine for their mass. Priests sometimes had to resort to whatever local beverage was available. Although wine seemed mandatory because Jesus used it in the last supper, some priests rationalized that perhaps Jesus used wine because it was the only drink available in his time and place, and therefore they were merely following Jesus’s example. Clearly the Europeans in America missed their familiar foods and soon brought their favorite crops with them.
The first big transfer of European crops to America began with Columbus’s second voyage. He returned to Hispaniola with a fleet of ships, 1,200 men, seeds and cuttings for wheat, chickpeas, onions, grape vines, sugar cane, and fruit. The Caribbean was not an ideal spot for all European horticulture. Wheat and other grains failed, as did the grapes and olives—no bread, wine, or oil. Fortunately some plants thrived, such as cabbage, European melons, citrus fruits, figs, sugar cane, and bananas from West Africa. The success of certain plants quickly led to plantations on Hispaniola producing food for local settlers and export to Europe. As early as 1530 there were thirty-four sugar mills on the island.
Europeans in the Americas also felt the lack of familiar livestock. Except for the llama, no beast of burden existed for plowing, hauling, or traveling in the western hemisphere. The natives of the Americas also lacked most of the domesticated animals familiar to the Europeans, e.g. horses, cattle, sheep, donkeys, pigs, and goats. In South America the llama, guinea pigs, and ducks had been domesticated, but throughout the Americas wild game was the main source of meat and leather. The introduction of European livestock to the Americas was so successful that within a few years large herds of wild horses and thousands of feral pigs roamed the islands of the Caribbean. The abundance of cattle, pigs, and horses led to a very large production of animal hides and tallow for shipment back to Europe. Because most New World animals were of little interest to Europeans, very few were brought back for reasons other than display. The turkey is a notable exception. But it is surprising to learn how quickly commercial enterprises were established in the Americas on the basis of plants and animals brought from Europe.
The story of the American Indians’ rapid adoption of the horse is well known. The horse improved the Indians’ quality of life immensely, especially in the great plains of North and South America. Using horses they could improve their supply of food by more successful hunts at greater distances and also be more successful in warfare. The horse became a source of wealth which could be traded for other valuable goods.
Another type of exchange between continents involved disease pathogens. The most familiar, though tragic, disease transplant from Europe to the Americas was smallpox. This horrible disease hit populations of native people who had absolutely no immunity. The disease spread rapidly with the disastrous result that the populations of entire tribes were wiped out in many parts of the Americas. In the Caribbean the much- feared Carib tribe quickly disappeared due to smallpox. Similar tragedies occurred across North America as well. Another disease, syphilis, is believed to have transmitted from America back to Europe. Although it spread throughout Europe after 1492, there is no clear evidence of its existence there earlier. Syphilis is a horrible and fatal disease if untreated, but it never destroyed entire populations like smallpox.
Food crops of the Americas played a large role in the survival of the European newcomers and many of those crops were taken back to Europe greatly enriching their diet with foods such as maize, many kinds of beans, peanuts, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin, tomatoes, chili peppers, cocoa, and avocados. Additionally certain non-food crops became important in Europe, although they could not always be grown there. These included tobacco, certain types of cotton, and rubber, after commercial uses for it were found.
Of all these plants corn (maize) and potatoes stand out as the most valuable contribution to Old World culture. Corn fits neatly into an environmental niche that may be too wet for wheat and too dry for rice. Corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes have the added advantage of producing almost double the calories per acre of land relative to wheat and other small grains. Few plants can match corn in production of carbohydrate, sugar, and oil in such a short growing season. Often corn could be grown with other crops, such as squash and beans, in the same field at the same time. In short, corn and potatoes may have been the best discovery made in the New World.
The Columbian Exchange, a term coined by Alfred Crosby, was initiated in 1492, continues today, and we see it now in the spread of Old World pathogens such as Asian flu, Ebola, and others. Now the time required for exchanges to occur is greatly shortened by having the entire world within a day’s travel. Thank you, Mr. Columbus.
LIST OF EXCHANGES BETWEEN HEMISPHERES
(List adapted from: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbian_Exchange)
1) New World to Old World
Plants (partial list)
avocado, beans, pepper, cocoa, cashew, berries (black raspberry), corn, peanut, pecan, pineapple, potato, pumpkin, rubber, various squash, sunflower, sweet potato, tobacco, tomato, vanilla, zucchini.
Animals (partial list) Diseases
guinea pig, llama, turkey. Chagas disease(a tropical
unicellular parasite), syphilis
2) Old World to New World
Plants (partial list)
almond, apple, apricot, banana, barley, beet, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cantaloupe, carrot, celery, coffee, citrus fruits, oats, onion, peach, pea, pear,
rice, rye, watermelon, wheat, yam.
Animals (partial list)
domestic cat, chicken, cow, donkey, goat, goose, horse, pig,
rats (Black rat and Norway rat), sheep, guinea fowl.
bubonic plague, chicken pox, cholera, common cold, influenza, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhoid, typhus, whooping cough, yellow fever.
Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian exchange: biological and cultural consequences of 1492. Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing. 1972.
Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books. 2005.
Mann, Charles C. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus created. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2011.