The Columbian exchange

“The Columbian exchange” is the name given to the transfer of plants, animals, peoples and microbes which took place between the Americas and the rest of the world after the year 1492. The Columbian exchange had a profound impact on nutrition, population growth, food culture and the prevalence of diseases.

Species that did not exist outside of the Americas before 1492 include: corn, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, cassava, sweet potatoes, turkey, peanut, manioc, chocolate, vanilla, pineapple, avocado, cashew, squash, rubber and strawberry. Species that did not exist in the Americas include: coffee, wheat and barley, sugarcane, banana, rice, horse, donkey, mule, pig, cow, sheep, goat, chicken, large dogs, cat and honey bees.

Diseases were also exchanged, and with devastating effect. Some 80 percent of the native population of the Americas died as a result of measle and smallpox epidemics. In some places, like the island of Hispaniola where Columbus first landed, all of the natives died. In return the Europeans got syphilis. The first known case in Europe dates from 1493 and the first great outbreak occurred in Italy the following year.

Today chilies are essential to much of the food of India and Southeast Asia, and it is difficult to imagine that they were unknown prior to 1492. Yet before Columbus, Indian curries where made with black pepper, not chilies. [Read more:Chocolate and chilies“] It is equally difficult to imagine that Italian food was made without tomatoes, that there was no coffee in Brazil, no bananas in Central America and no sugarcane in Cuba. It was only in the course of the eighteenth-century that horses began to be used by the native peoples of North America. It was only now that they could begin to hunt bison.

The potato had a crucial impact on the level of nutrition in Europe, yet it was slow to be adopted and often had to be officially promoted by European governments. In Sweden, the potato only caught on once it was discovered that it could be used in the production of vodka. In 1748, the person responsible for the discovery, Eva de la Gardie, became the first female member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Soon, however, the potato was a staple diet around Europe, contributing to perhaps 25 percent of the population growth between the years 1700 and 1900. Without Columbus there would have been no “potato famine” in Ireland in the 1840s and 50s.

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