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why was the columbian exchange so important,
Millions of years ago, continental drift carried the Old World and New Worlds apart, splitting North and South America from Eurasia and Africa. That separation lasted so long that it fostered divergent evolution; for instance, the development of rattlesnakes on one side of the Atlantic and vipers on the other. After 1492, human voyagers in part reversed this tendency. Their artificial re-establishment of connections through the commingling of Old and New World plants, animals, and bacteria, commonly known as the Columbian Exchange, is one of the more spectacular and significant ecological events of the past millennium.
When Europeans first touched the shores of the Americas, Old World crops such as wheat, barley, rice, and turnips had not traveled west across the Atlantic,
and New World crops such as maize, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and manioc had not traveled east to Europe. In the Americas, there were no horses, cattle, sheep, or goats, all animals of Old World origin. Except for the llama, alpaca, dog, a few fowl, and guinea pig, the New World had no equivalents to the domesticated animals associated with the Old World, nor did it have the pathogens associated with the Old World’s dense populations of humans and such associated creatures as chickens, cattle, black rats, and Aedes egypti mosquitoes. Among these germs were those that carried smallpox, measles, chickenpox, influenza, malaria, and yellow fever.
maize to China and the white potato to Ireland—have been stimulants to population growth in the Old World. The latter’s crops and livestock have had much the same effect in the Americas—for example, wheat in Kansas and the Pampa, and beef cattle in Texas and Brazil.
The physical fact of the meeting and travel between the Old and the New World was a huge environmental turning point, which was given the name of the ‘Columbian Exchange’, the mixing of people, deadly diseases that devastated Native American population, crops and animals, goods, and trade flows. The term ‘Columbian Exchange’ was coined by the historian, Alfred Crosby in a book by that name in 1972, subtitled Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492.
The result of that exchange amounted to an environmental revolution in human history. One of the first consequences was the sweeping through Native American populations of epidemics, diseases that Europeans had acquired immunities to, devastated the populations of the Americas with typhus, diphtheria, malaria, influenza, cholera, and especially smallpox. As Europeans traveled in lands new to them, epidemics preceded them, wiping out more than half the people.
why was tobacco so important in the columbian exchange,
Tobacco (Nicotiana tabaccum) was first introduced from Mesoamerica to North America in 200 AD. Native Americans used tobacco, above all, in religious ceremonies. After 1492 and the onset of Columbian Exchange, Europeans took an interest in the plant. Use of tobacco, including as a medicinal cure-all, spread to royal courts (particularly the French court) throughout Europe. However, it was the English settler John Rolfe (1585–1622) who, having settled in Jamestown,
Virginia, became the first European to successfully raise tobacco as an export crop. By 1612, the first seeds had been planted.
Thereafter, it became the Virginia Company’s most important export crop, paving the way for tobacco to be used more widely as a recreational drug. The cultivation and worldwide distribution of tobacco has had a severe impact on the environment. In order to establish acreage, large areas of forest were cleared, following which, soil degradation often ensued. As agriculture underwent modernization, the intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides further complicated matters.
why was disease so important to the columbian exchange,
Before 1492, Native Americans (Amerindians) hosted none of the acute infectious diseases that had long bedeviled most of Eurasia and Africa: measles, smallpox, influenza, mumps, typhus, and whooping cough, among others. In most places other than isolated villages, these had become endemic childhood diseases that killed one-fourth to one-half of all children before age six. Survivors, however, carried partial, and often total, immunity to most of these infections with the notable exception of influenza. Falciparum malaria, by far the most severe variant of that plasmodial infection, and yellow fever also crossed the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas.
In the centuries after 1492, these infections swirled as epidemics among Native American populations. Physical and psychological stress, including mass violence, compounded their effect. The impact was most severe in the Caribbean, where by 1600 Native American populations on most islands had plummeted by more than 99 percent. Across the Americas, populations fell by 50 percent to 95 percent by 1650.
The disease component of the Columbian Exchange was decidedly one-sided. However, it is likely that syphilis evolved in the Americas and spread elsewhere beginning in the 1490s. More assuredly, Native Americans hosted a form of tuberculosis, perhaps acquired from Pacific seals and sea lions. But they had no counterparts to the suite of lethal diseases they acquired from Eurasians and Africans.
The paucity of exportable infections was a result of the settlement and ecological history of the Americas: The first Americans arrived about 25,000 to 15,000 years ago. The domestication of species other than dogs was yet to come. So none of the human diseases derived from, or shared with, domestic herd animals such as cattle, camels, and pigs (e.g. smallpox, influenza) yet existed anywhere in the Americas. Unlike these animals, the ducks, turkeys, alpacas, llamas, and other species domesticated by Native Americans seem to have harboured no infections that became human diseases.
why was the Crops and animals so important in the columbian exchange,
Eurasians sent much more than disease westward. The introduction of new crops and domesticated animals to the Americas did almost as much to upset the region’s biological,
economic, and social balance as the introduction of disease had. Columbus had wanted to establish new fields of plenty in the Americas. On his later voyages he brought many crops he hoped might flourish there. He and his followers brought the familiar food grains of Europe: wheat, barley, and rye. They also brought Mediterranean plantation crops such as sugar,
bananas, and citrus fruits, which all had originated in South or Southeast Asia. At first, many of these crops fared poorly; but eventually they all flourished. After 1640, sugar became the mainstay of the Caribbean and Brazilian economies, becoming the foundation for some of the largest slave societies ever known. The production of rice and cotton, both imported in the Columbian Exchange,
together with tobacco, formed the basis of slave society in the United States. Wheat, which thrived in the temperate latitudes of North and South America and in the highlands of Mexico, eventually became a fundamental food crop for tens of millions of people in the Americas. Indeed, by the late 20th century, wheat exports from Canada, the United States, and Argentina were feeding millions of people outside the Americas. It is true that the spread of these crops drastically changed the economy of the Americas. However, these new crops supported the European settler societies and their African slave systems. The Native Americans preferred their own foods.
When it came to animals, however, the Native Americans borrowed eagerly from the Eurasian stables. The Columbian Exchange brought horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and a collection of other useful species to the Americas. Before Columbus,
Native American societies in the high Andes had domesticated llamas and alpacas, but no other animals weighing more than 45 kg (100 lbs). And for good reason: none of the other 23 large mammal species present in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus were suitable for domestication. In contrast, Eurasia had 72 large animal species, of which 13 were suitable for domestication. So, while Native Americans had plenty of good food crops available before 1492, they had few domesticated animals. The main ones, aside from llamas and alpacas, were dogs, turkeys, and guinea pigs.
Of all the animals introduced by the Europeans, the horse held particular attraction. Native Americans first encountered it as a fearsome war beast ridden by Spanish conquistadors. However, they soon learned to ride and raise horses themselves. In the North American great plains,
the arrival of the horse revolutionized Native American life, permitting tribes to hunt the buffalo far more effectively. Several Native American groups left farming to become buffalo-hunting nomads and, incidentally, the most formidable enemies of European expansion in the Americas.
Cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats also proved popular in the Americas. Within 100 years after Columbus, huge herds of wild cattle roamed many of the natural grasslands of the Americas. Wild cattle, and, to a lesser degree, sheep and goats, menaced the food crops of Native Americans, notably in Mexico. Eventually ranching economies emerged, based variously on cattle, goats, or sheep. The largest ranches emerged in the grasslands of Venezuela and Argentina,
and on the broad sea of grass that stretched from northern Mexico to the Canadian prairies. Native Americans used the livestock for meat, tallow, hides, transportation, and hauling. Altogether, the suite of domesticated animals from Eurasia brought a biological, economic, and social revolution to the Americas.
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