Columbian Exchange

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The Columbian Exchange has been one of the significant events in the history of world ecology, agriculture, and culture. The term is used to describe the enormous widespread exchange of agricultural goods, livestock, slave labor, communicable diseases, and ideas between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres that occurred after 1492. That year, Christopher Columbus' first voyage launched an era of large-scale contact between the Old and the New World that resulted in this ecological revolution. This exchange of plants and animals transformed European, American, African, and Asian ways of life. Foods that had never been seen before by some people became staples. For example, before 1492, no potatoes were grown outside of South America. By the 1800s, Ireland was so dependent on the potato that a disease-based crop led to the devastating Irish Potato Famine. The first European import, the horse, changed the lives of many Native American tribes on the Great Plains, while coffee from Africa and sugarcane from Asia became the main crops of extensive Latin American plantations. Before regular communication had been established between the two hemispheres, the varieties of domesticated animals and infectious diseases were both strikingly larger in the Old World than in the New. This led, in part, to the devastating effects of Old World diseases on Native American populations. The smallpox epidemics probably resulted in the highest death toll for Native Americans. Smallpox, measles, typhus, plague, and influenza were among the maladies previously unknown in the Americas, and therefore, the native populations had little immunological resistance to them. The large-scale epidemics that followed roundly devastated indigenous communities, producing great mortality and cultural disruption. This greatly weakened their capacity for military response and inadvertently paved the way for rapid European expansion and cultural dominance. The European exploration of the world and...