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The early exchanges of life forms between Europe and America, which began in earnest with the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, included disease germs, weeds, and vermin as well as medicines, crops, and domesticated animals. The effects were far-reaching for species that had developed in relative isolation on different continents of the Old and New Worlds.
Two hundred million years ago the continents of Earth were massed together contiguously. There was maximum opportunity for terrestrial species to migrate and therefore a higher degree of biotic uniformity than later. Then the continents split, drifted away from each other, and thereafter each continent’s species evolved independently. North America and Asia reconnected several times in the far north and so share many species, but there are many contrasts between the two; the Old World, for example, has such native species as nightingales and cobras, which the New World does not share, while the New World has hummingbirds and rattlesnakes, not present in the Old World. Contrasts between South America and the Old World are especially dramatic; in the former one finds nose-waggling tapirs, whereas in the latter one finds nose-waggling elephants.
Old and New Worlds: People, Crops, Animals
Ten thousand years ago the most recent ice age ended, the continental glaciers melted, and sea levels rose, dividing the Old and New Worlds once again. Before that a number of species had passed between the two, the most influential of which was the Old World anthropoid Homo sapiens. Thereafter the peoples of the Old World and the Americas evolved separately. The genetic differences that resulted were minor, but the cultural differences were major because the two peoples took different paths in exploiting their different environments.
Both invented agriculture—that is, the domestication of crops and of livestock—but two very different systems of agriculture. The Native Americans probably arrived from Asia with the dog and were therefore familiar with the concept of tame animals, but domesticated few creatures in America, possibly because there were few suitable. Those they domesticated included the llama and alpaca, the guinea pig, and several species of fowl. The Native Americans excelled as farmers, developing one-third or so of all of today’s most important food crops: maize, beans of several kinds, the white and sweet potatoes, manioc (cassava), squashes and pumpkins, peanuts, papayas, guavas, avocados, pineapples, tomatoes, chilies, sunflower seeds, and others.
Not surprisingly, Old World indigenes, of whom there were many more than Native Americans and who lived in a wider expanse of land and participated in a greater variety of ecosystems, domesticated more kinds of animals and plants. Horses, donkeys, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens (today’s protagonists of our barnyards and meadows and our chief sources of meat, milk, leather, and animal fiber) are all Old World in origin. The same is true of wheat, barley, rye, oats, rice, peas, turnips, sugarcane, onions, lettuce, olives, bananas, peaches, pears, and many other stock items of our diets today.
Separation of the Old and New Worlds: Disease
The Old World outdid the New as a source of infectious diseases, too. The greater number of people in more varied ecosystems were bound to have a greater variety of diseases, especially because they lived in close contact with their livestock. The intermixing of Old World humans across Eurasia and Africa, and their propinquity with their animals, produced many of the historically most significant diseases. An undoubtedly incomplete list includes smallpox, measles, influenza, malaria, yellow fever, and typhus. Pre-Columbian Amerindians had tuberculosis and treponematosis (having probably brought the latter with them from the Old World) and cultivated, unintentionally, new infections in America, including Chagas Disease, but their indigenous diseases were few and mild compared with those native to the Old World. (Syphilis is often nominated as a distinctively American infection, but that is debatable.)
When Christopher Columbus brought the Old and New Worlds together in 1492, he unleashed the organisms of each on the other. The most spectacular early result of the intermixing was the traumatic spread of Eastern Hemisphere infections among the Native Americans. The European conquest of the Americas was not so much a matter of brutality, though there was plenty of that, as of imported diseases. Smallpox figures significantly in the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru, and again and again throughout the Americas. The Native American population fell by as much, claim highly respected demographic historians, as 90 percent before beginning recovery.
On the other hand, Old World plants and animals immensely increased the capacity of America to support in time large human populations. Horses, pigs, and cattle, for instance, went feral from Florida to the Argentine pampa and within a century had propagated into the millions. Old World livestock revolutionized human life and whole ecosystems in the Americas. Meat had been a rare item in the diets of the vast peasantries of the advanced Amerindian societies. After the Columbian Exchange it became common in many regions and in the others, if not common, at least more available than before.
There had been no beasts of burden in the Americas except the dog and the llama. The pyramids and other monuments of the high American civilizations were raised by human muscle. If the burro had been the only domesticated animal brought to Mexico by the invaders, it alone would have revolutionized indigenous societies there.
The impact of the horse on Native American societies was particularly spectacular. Many Amerindians who had been strictly pedestrian became equestrian. From approximately 1750 to 1800, the native peoples of North America’s Great Plains (Blackfoot, Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Pawnee, and others) and of South America’s pampas (Pehuenches, Puelches, Tehuelches, Ranqueles, and others), all took to the horse.
Old World crops did not at first advance in the New World as rapidly as Old World livestock—they were, after all, not mobile—but also because most of them were temperate-zone plants not suited to Europe’s earliest American colonies, which were all in the tropics. But European colonists adjusted, imported suitable species such as sugarcane, for instance, and suitable varieties of homeland crops, and sowed them where the soils and climates were similar to those at home. They discovered that wheat prospered in the Mexican high country, for example. Olive trees and grapes for wine did well in Peru. Within a century of Columbus most of the Old World’s important crops were growing in America.
Among the most profitable was sugarcane, the source of a quasi-addictive substance: sugar. The market for sugar in Europe seemed endlessly expansive for centuries, and therefore sugarcane became the single most important crop in the West Indies, Brazil, and other hot, wet regions in or contiguous to the American tropics. The planting, cultivation, harvesting, and processing of the cane required millions of laborers. The Amerindian populations were plummeting, and European immigrants were in short supply. The workers had to come from some untapped source. The single most powerful force driving the Atlantic slave trade was the sugar plantations’ need for laborers.
An estimated 12.5 million Africans were commandeered to work American soils, a majority of them, certainly a plurality, to raise an Old World sweet in the New World for Old World consumption.
1492 and the Old World
Amerindian livestock did not revolutionize life in the Old World. Guinea pigs and turkeys have never figured significantly in Europe, Asia, or Africa as food sources, and the llama was so obviously inferior to several Old World animals as a beast of burden that it has never had more than novelty value in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Amerindian crops, however, had enormous effect on the Old World. Most of those which became standard in Old World diets were brought back by the Spanish and Portuguese to Iberia, where they were being cultivated by the sixteenth century; they spread out from there. Some would flourish where Old World crops would not; manioc, for instance, where the rainfall was too much or too little, the soil infertile, and the pests too voracious for traditional staples like rice and yams. Several American foods were more nourishing, more productive, and easier to cultivate and to harvest than traditional Old World crops. Maize became a standard crop in sub-Saharan Africa, in some regions the most important crop.
The white potato, from the high, wet, cool Andes, became one of the most important food sources for the lower classes of northern Europe. In Ireland it became indispensable for the peasantry, and when, in the 1840s, an American fungus, Phytophthora infestans, arrived and destroyed the potato crop, a million died of starvation and disease and a million and a half fled the country.
The list of examples of the influence of the Columbian exchange in the Old World diets is a long one; it includes the tomato in Italian cuisine, the chili in Indian recipes, the presence of maize in most sub-Saharan African diets, and so forth. By way of illustrative example, let us consider the story of American food crops in a land usually thought of as resistant to outside influences: China. No Old World people adopted these alien plants faster than the Chinese.
The eagerness with which the Chinese received American foods is related to population pressure. Between 1368 and 1644, the years of the Ming dynasty, the Chinese population doubled at the same time that farmers of the traditional staples, wheat in the north and rice in the south, were running into problems of diminishing returns. They were close to raising as much food as they could on suitable land using existing techniques. The problem may have been especially pressing in the south, where most of the level and near-level land close to markets and sources of water for irrigation was already occupied by rice paddies.
The Spanish and the Portuguese, both with American empires, carried the Amerindian crops to East Asia. The port of Manila, newly Spanish and only a few days’ sail from the China coast, played a major role in the transfer of native American crops to China. Sweet potatoes, a calorically rich food, arrived in China some time in the last years of the sixteenth century. This crop did well in inferior soils, tolerated drought, resisted insect pests, and prospered with little care compared with existing staples such as paddy rice. By 1650 sweet potatoes were common in Guangdong and Fujian provinces and well on the way to becoming the staple of the poorer peasants wherever climate would allow.
Maize arrived in China even before the mid-sixteenth century. It, too, was hardy and required no more attention and strength in weeding and harvesting than children could provide. It produced food faster than most crops and provided high amounts of calories. It soon became a common secondary crop from Shanxi in the northwest to Yunnan in the southwest and eventually a primary crop in several inland provinces.
Peanuts, growing in China at least as early as 1538, have always been considered a novelty food in the West, but became a common item in Chinese meals. Peanuts provide plenty of calories and oil, and as they grow enrich the soil with nitrogen.
According to the demographic historian Ho Ping-ti, “During the last two centuries when rice culture was gradually approaching its limit, and encountering the law of diminishing returns, the various dry land food crops introduced from America have contributed most to the increase in national food production and have made possible a continual growth in population” (Ho 1959, 191–192). That statement applies as well to most of humanity in the Eastern Hemisphere.
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