Columbian Exchange Essay

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The Columbian Exchange is the transferboth intentional and unintentional-of biological material across the Atlantic. It began with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus from Europe to the Americas in 1492. This voyage initiated a process that continues to this day, linking the ecosystems of the Americas with those of the rest of the world.

The term Columbian exchange was coined by the historian Alfred W. Crosby in his 1972 book, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, which advanced Crosby’s claim that “the most important changes brought on by the Columbian voyages were biological in nature.” Some species, such as domesticated plants and animals, were intentionally introduced with dramatic consequences. For example, sugar, which was domesticated in Asia, transformed the ecosystems of the West Indies and Brazil and motivated the forced migration of millions of enslaved Africans to labor on the plantations. Farther north, and a little later, the introduction of cotton, also domesticated in Asia, would have similar impacts. European farmers brought their cereal crops with them as they emigrated to the Americas: wheat, barley, oats, and rye. They also brought vegetables and fruit such as onions, cabbages, peaches, and pears. Africans carried domesticated varieties of African rice, as well as the knowledge to cultivate it in a new environment. Later, Asian varieties of rice would also be grown in the Americas with African labor and expertise. In addition, sorghum, millet, and yams, all eastern hemisphere domesticates, were transferred to the Americas. As human populations increased in the Americas over the next several centuries, the cultivation of these crops encouraged the transformation of the landscape through deforestation, draining of wetlands, and reduction of biotic diversity.

The plants that were carried eastward from the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia had equally significant effects. Maize, domesticated in Central America, was growing in Africa by the early 1500s. Manioc and peanuts would also prove to be important food crops in Africa. Potatoes replaced a variety of cereal grains and vegetables in the fields of Europe after they were introduced from the Americas. Like maize, potatoes offered a high caloric return and therefore could support a larger population on the same acreage planted to European crops; potatoes and maize helped to fuel a population surge that would ultimately lead to Europe’s industrial revolution. Vegetables and fruit that made the voyage from the Americas included tomatoes, squash, pumpkin, avocado, and pineapple.

Native Americans had domesticated relatively few animals (dogs, llamas, fowl, and guinea pigs) in comparison to Asians, Europeans, and Africans. However, the introduction of new domesticates such as horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats reshaped American cultures and landscapes. Domesticated animals had been important sources of food and labor in the eastern hemisphere, and would serve similar purposes in the western hemisphere. Horses played significant roles in the conquest of the Americas by Spanish conquistadors, but when they arrived on the North American Great Plains and the South American pampas, horses revolutionized the traditional subsistence patterns and cultural forms of indigenous groups. Likewise, the introduction of sheep impacted native groups such as the Navajo. Introduced animals affected the American landscape even more dramatically than introduced crops, at least in the first centuries after introduction. The native ecosystems of Hispaniola, for example, were severely damaged by cattle, horses, and pigs brought to the island by Europeans.

Major Demographic Shift

The Columbian exchange also comprised the largest demographic shifts in world history. European slavers forced the migration of some 10 million Africans to the Americas. The vast majority of these slaves were captured in West Africa, between the Senegal River just south of the Sahara Desert and Angola on the central African west coast. On average, 10 to 20 percent of the slaves that boarded ships in Africa died before they reached the Americas. By 1650 Africans made up over half of the settlers in the Americas, and up to the time of the American Revolution, six of every seven people who journeyed across the Atlantic were Africans. Approximately 80 percent of the Africans were carried to the Caribbean islands and Brazil.

The unintentional introductions to the western hemisphere were in some cases a nuisance and in others a devastating force. Weeds invaded native ecosystems, often abetted by the ecological disturbances created by livestock. Small mammals, most notably rats, accompanied the earliest European immigrants. However, the truly devastating introductions were too small to see: the microbes that caused diseases in humans. It is difficult to accurately determine the population declines of Native Americans after 1492 due to disease. Recent estimates suggest precontact populations between 43 million and 100 million. One estimate places the population in the Americas in 1492 at 54 million with about 50 million of these south of the present-day United States. This population was reduced by an estimated 76 percent between 1492 and 1650. Other scholars have estimated significantly higher mortality rates. Much of this population loss was due to infectious diseases such as influenza, measles, smallpox, bubonic plague, chicken pox, diphtheria, cholera, whooping cough, and scarlet fever. The worst of the epidemics occurred in the first century after contact. The first large-scale epidemic, primarily smallpox, broke out in the Americas in 1519 on the island of Santo Domingo, where it decimated the population of the Arawaks, the first natives that Columbus had encountered three decades earlier. From Santo Domingo the epidemic made its way to Mexico, where it paved the way for the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortez. Several factors explain the susceptibility of Native Americans to the diseases of the eastern hemisphere. Eastern hemisphere diseases were left behind as the earliest Americans crossed the Bering land bridge and moved southward and eastward through the Americas. Equally important, because indigenous Americans domesticated relatively few animals, the Americas did not develop the many infectious human diseases that originated in animal populations. These two factors left Native Americans defenseless, leading to what demographers refer to as “virgin soil epidemics.”


  1. Judith A. Carney, “African Rice in the Columbian Exchange,” Journal of African History (v.42, 2001);
  2. Alfred W. Crosby, Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History (M.E. Sharpe, 1994);
  3. Alfred W. Crosby Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Greenwood Press, 1972);
  4. Gary Nash, Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early North America (Prentice Hall, 1999);
  5. Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (Alfred Knopf, 1990);
  6. L. Turner II and Karl W. Butzer, “The Columbian Encounter and Land-Use Change,” Environment (v.34 1992).

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