The Columbian Exchange:
A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas
By: Daniela Espana
The Columbian exchange refers to the exchange of diseases, ideas, food crops, and populations between The Old World and The New World, following the voyage to The Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1942. The Old World by which I mean not just Europe, but the entire Eastern Hemisphere gained from the Columbian Exchange in a number of ways. Discoveries of new supplies of metals are perhaps the best known, but the Old World also gained new crops such as potatoes, maize, and cassava; Also foods such as tomatoes, chili peppers, cocoa, peanuts, and pineapples were introduced, and are now culinary centerpieces in many Old World countries, mainly in Italy, Greece and other Mediterranean countries. Tobacco, another New World crop, was so popular that it came to be used as a substitute for currency in many parts of the world. The exchange also drastically increased the availability of many Old World crops, such as sugar and coffee, which were particularly well-suited for the soils of the New World. The exchange not only brought gains but also loses. European contact enabled transmission of diseases to previously isolated communities, which caused devastation far exceeding that of the Black Death in fourteenth century Europe. Europeans brought deadly virus and bacteria, such as smallpox, measles, typhus, and cholera for which Native Americans had no immunity. On their return home, European sailors brought syphilis to Europe. Although less deadly, the disease was known to cause great social disruption throughout the Old World. The effects of the Columbian Exchange were not isolated to the parts of the world most directly participating in the exchange: Europe and the Americas. It also had large, although less direct, impacts on Africa and Asia. European exploration and colonization of the vast tropical regions of these continents was aided by the New World discovery of quinine, the first effective treatment for malaria. Moreover, the cultivation of financially lucrative crops in the Americas, along with the devastation of native populations from disease, resulted in a demand for labor that met with the abduction and forced movement of over twelve-million Africans during the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.
The Spread of Disease from the Old World to the New
The list of infectious diseases that spread from the Old World to the New World is long; the major killers include smallpox, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, , typhus, and malaria. Therefore, because native populations had no previous contact with Old World diseases, they were immunologically defenseless. Although we may never know the exact magnitudes of the depopulation, it is estimated that upwards of 80–95 percent of the Native American population was decimated within the first 100–150 years following 1492. Within 50 years following contact with Columbus and his crew, the native Taino population of the island of Hispanola, which had an estimated population between 60,000 and eight-million, was virtually extinct. Central Mexico’s population fell from just under 15 million in 1519 to approximately 1.5 a centaury later.
The uncertainty surrounding the exact magnitude of the depopulation of the Americas arises because we don’t know the extent of the disease may have depopulated the regions beyond the initial point before European explorers made physical contact with these populations. If disease traveled faster than explorers it, would have killed a significant amount of people before direct contact, causing first hand accounts of initial population sizes to be based downward. The result is that 1491 population estimates for the Americas has varied widely, from a lower-bound estimate of 8 million to an upper-bound estimate of over 110 million people. Surprisingly, despite decades of research no clear answer...
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