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Columbian Exchange

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Columbian Exchange

Imagine yourself preparing for a journey. There is no guarantee that you will ever return to your native land. There is no indication or previous knowledge of how long that journey will take. What do you take with you? Items of personal and memorial value? The food you are familiar with cultivating and eating? Animals you have domesticated and understand?

Now add one more factor: the destination will also have flora, fauna, and other things you may have never seen before or even knew existed. It would be like you are entering a strangely familiar yet alien world. This experience, though hypothetical to most, was all too real for the Europeans who began to explore and conquer the North and South American continents in the late 1400s and early 1500s.

Christopher Columbus and the Colombian Exchange definition

An engraving of a portrait of Christopher Columbus, circa 1595. Source: Library of Congress. An engraving of a portrait of Christopher Columbus, circa 1595. Source: Library of Congress.

Most historians begin recording the conquest, colonization, and interaction between the peoples of the Americas and Europe with the First Voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Though there is evidence that other European explorers may have discovered the continents before Columbus’s voyage, it was not until after his exploits that Europe, especially Spain, retained a forceful and economic focus on what would be called the “New World.”

An Italian explorer and sailor, Christopher Columbus, was hired by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain to find passage to the Spice Islands in India and Asia that was not controlled or dominated by the Portuguese. Columbus, sailing west in 1492, crossed the Atlantic ocean, landing in what is now called the Caribbean.

His first interactions with the Indigenous Peoples were cautious, but Columbus wanted to continue the economic exploration of the region.

Upon his return to Spain, he convinced the King and Queen of the value of ongoing exploration of the area and engaging in trade or even conquest of the Indigenous Peoples. The trade - voluntary or involuntary- of every new plant, animal, good or merchandise, idea, and disease over the century following Colombus' first voyage is a process historians call The Columbian Exchange.

The Columbian Exchange: every new plant, animal, good or merchandise, idea, and disease traded - voluntarily or involuntarily - between the Old World of Europe, Africa, and Asia and the New World of North and South America.

The beginning of the Colombian Exchange

Excluding a small minority of outlier explorers from Europe, there had been very little to no interaction between the Peoples, flora, and fauna of the North and South American continents and their counterparts in Europe, Africa, and Asia since the geologic Bering Land Bridge connecting the continents submerged around 10,000 years before. The plants, animals, and human culture, therefore, adapted and evolved to their unique environments during that time.

This separation over thousands of years created genuinely unique biodiversity ranges in almost all aspects of plant and animal life.

I saw neither sheep nor goats nor any other beast, but I have been here a short time, half a day; yet if there were any, I couldn’t have failed to see them [...] there were dogs that never barked… All the trees were different than ours as day from night, and so the fruits, the herbage, the rocks, and all things1

- Christopher Colombus

Effects of the Colombian Exchange

The Colombian Exchange saw the exchange of many plants, animals, spices, minerals and commodities between the Old and the New World, but there was a darker side to it - the exchange of disease decimated a huge amount of the Indigenous populations of North and South America. Let's explore this exchange, before looking at other effects.

The Colombian Exchange and disease

Historians have researched and investigated why Europeans could conquer the New World with relative ease. There are theories on military and technological supremacy, diplomatic and economic superiority, and other views. All of these have supporting evidence, but none can fully explain how the European conquest happened so quickly.

For example, even though Spain arrived into the territory of the Aztecs with metal armor, cannons, horses, and military tactics to match, they were outnumbered by a civilization that housed the most populous city in the world at that time, Tenochtitlan.

Disease was a huge factor that weakened the Indigenous Peoples of North and South America in the face of European conquest. Diseases carried from the Old World to the New World by the European invaders are estimated to have killed around 90% of the Indigenous Peoples in the Americas who had no immunity to the germs that had infested Europe, Asia, and Africa for centuries.

  • The greatest killer was smallpox, which was spread by direct human contact. The epidemic that hit the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1520 had begun on the island of Hispaniola two years early and had spread through Mexico, Central America, and South America.
  • One of the reasons the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro took over the Incan Empire so quickly was that disease had annihilated their society just before his arrival.
  • Influenza, measles, and other illnesses added to the destruction of Indigenous societies.

The statistics, even the conservative estimates, are staggering. When Columbus landed in Hispaniola in 1492, about one million Indigenous people resided there. Fifty years later, only 500 were still alive. According to some estimates, five to ten million Indigenous people inhabited central Mexico before Cortez and the Spanish. By the end of the 1500s, fewer than one million remained.2

The exchange of disease was not one-sided however as the Europeans contracted syphilis from the Americas. The first recorded case of syphilis in Europe occurred in Spain in 1493, shortly after Columbus’ return. Although less deadly than the diseases exchanged to the Americas, syphilis was more deadly in the 1500s than today, and adequate treatment was unknown.

The Colombian Exchange: animals, plants and food

Though deadly and influential, the exchange of diseases was only part of a broader mutual transfer of plants and animals that resulted directly from the voyages of explorers and colonists to the New World.

  • The vegetable agriculture of the New World- especially corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, and potatoes- was more nutritious and could be cultivated in more significant quantities than those of the Old World, such as wheat and rye.
  • On the other hand, the Americas had few domesticated animals larger than dogs and llamas. Over the century, Indigenous Peoples learned to raise and consume European domesticated animals such as cattle, pigs, and sheep.

Europeans became accustomed to planting and eating American crops. As a result, the diets of both peoples changed. One consequence is the doubling of the world population over the next few centuries as nutrition and food production improved.

Tobacco, Sugar, and Horses

The exchange of three other commodities significantly changed the Europeans and Native Americans. In the Americas, Europeans discovered tobacco - smoking and chewing tobacco quickly became popular in the Old World. Tobacco cultivation later formed the basis for the first English colonies in the New World.

In the opposite direction, sugarcane from Africa was imported to the New World. Flourishing in the tropical climates of South America and the Caribbean, the expansion of this crop would lead to the mass use of enslaved labor in the New World.

As critical as these plants were, the introduction of horses was hugely impactful on certain Indigenous cultures in the New World; the Spanish brought with them the first horses Americans had ever seen. Some escaped or were stolen; such horses were traded north through Mexico into the Great Plains of North America, where tribes like the Apache, Comanche, Sioux, and Blackfeet eventually made the horse the focal point of their society.

Colombian Exchange map

The map below from the Encyclopedia Britannica shows a visual representation of the commodities and diseases exchanged between the old and New World.

The map shows a visualization of the goods, plants, animals, and diseases exchanged between the old and new world in the decades following the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.The map shows a visualization of the goods, plants, animals, and diseases exchanged between the old and new world in the decades following the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

Columbian Exchange - Key takeaways

  • Most historians begin recording the conquest, colonization, and interaction between the peoples of the Americas and Europe with the First Voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492.
  • Excluding a small minority of outlier explorers from Europe, there was very little to no interaction between the Indigenous peoples, flora, and fauna of North and South American continents with their counterparts in Europe, Africa, and Asia for around 10,000 years. This separation created genuinely unique biodiversity ranges in almost all aspects of plant and animal life.

  • Though many plants, animals, spices, and minerals were exchanged over the century following Columbus’s voyage, the most crucial thing was exchanged between the peoples of the New World (North and South America) and the Old World (Europe, Africa, and Asia) was disease.

  • Diseases carried from the Old World to the New World by the European invaders are estimated to have killed around 90% of the Indigenous Peoples in the Americas who had no immunity to the germs that had infested Europe, Asia, and Africa for centuries.

  • Though deadly and influential, the exchange of diseases was only part of a broader mutual transfer of plants and animals that resulted directly from the voyages of explorers and colonists to the New World.

  • These included: cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, llamas, tomatoes, potatoes, yams, squash, sugarcane, rice, wheat, tobacco, and thousands of others.

  • This exchange period over a century forever changed all societies across the world, as new markets, goods, and nutrition spurred economic and population growth.


1. Christopher Columbus, Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, translated by Samuel Eliot Morrison, 72-72, 84.

2. Crosby, A. W., McNeill, J. R., & von Mering, O. (2003). The Columbian Exchange. Praeger.

Frequently Asked Questions about Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange was the period of time following Columbus’s first voyage during which indigenous foods, plants, animals, ideas, and diseases were exchanged - intentionally and unintentionally- between the societies and cultures of the New World (North and South America) and the Old World (Africa, Asia, and Europe). 

The Columbian exchange took place following the First Voyage of Columbus in 1492 through the following century to the 1600s. 

The Columbian exchange had an adverse effect on the people of Africa. As disease ravaged the native peoples of the New World, and high labor crops such as sugarcane, rice, and tobacco are introduced to the New World, the societies of the Old World turned to African slaves as their main source of mass labor. 

Some of the effects of the Columbian exchange include the spreading of diseases between the Old and New World. In the New World, diseases, especially smallpox, nearly exterminated native cultures. The exchange of new plants and animals changed both Old and New World societies through economic trade, changes in nutrition, population growth, and cultural adaptations of new commodities.

The Columbian Exchange affected Europe by opening up new trade markets for European goods. Introduced new and more nutritious foods to European societies. Triggered the international need for colonization to control commodities. It also introduced new diseases into European society such as syphilis. 

Final Columbian Exchange Quiz

Question

Which of the following was NOT an influential commodity of the Columbian Exchange?

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Answer

Turkeys and Fowl

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The Columbian Exchange would best be described as

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The exchange of biological, ecological, and other commodities between Europe and the Americas 

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Which of the following was NOT an unintended consequence of the Columbian Exchange? 

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The nations of Europe moved to capitalize and exploit the natural resources of North and South America in order to gain economic advantages over their rival European nations. 

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Question

Why was disease the most influential effect of the Columbian Exchange?


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Answer

The spreading of disease-ravaged native societies, drastically reduced their populations, making their conquest by the Europeans relatively easy

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Question

“ There was no sickness; they had no aching bones; they had then no high fever; they had then no smallpox; they had then no burning chest; they had then no abdominal pain; they had then no consumption; they had then no headache. At that time the course of humanity was orderly. The foreigners have made it otherwise when they arrived here.” Source: The Book of Chilan Balam of Chumayel, translated by Ralph L. Roy, 83.  


This quote best describes which effect of the Columbian Exchange? 




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Answer

The rapid and deadly spread of New World diseases

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Question

Which of the following diseases, many of which were listed in the quote above, was the most influential in disrupting or eradicating native societies?

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Answer

Smallpox

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Question

Which of the following European nations was the first to begin consistent contact with the native peoples of the New World?


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Spain

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Question

Which of the following crops, originating in the New World, became pivotal in the establishment of the English colonies in North America? 


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Tobacco

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Which of the following domesticated animals originated in the New World?


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Answer

None of the Following

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Which of the following was the most influential agricultural commodity exchanged from the New World to the Old World? 


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Answer

Potatoes

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Question

Which Old World crop would be introduced into the New World, having the most influence in creating a demand for mass enslaved labor from Africa? 

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Answer

Sugarcane

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Question

In which of the following countries was Christopher Columbus born? 

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Answer

Italy

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Question

What year was Christopher Columbus's first expedition into the Atlantic Ocean? 

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Answer

1451

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True or False: Columbus made his calculations on the distance between Europe and Asia across the Atlantic believing the earth to be flat

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False

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True or False: During the time of Columbus and other exploration, many of his contemporaries did not know the exact circumference of the earth.

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False

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What year did Columbus begin to petition nations to sponsor his expedition west across the Atlantic? 

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1486

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Though Italian born, which nation financed Christopher Columbus on his voyages west across the Atlantic? 

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Answer

Spain 

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Question

On what date and approximately were in the Caribbean did Columbus and his fleet first make landfall in the Americas? 

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Answer

October 12, 1492 in present-day Bahamas

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Between 1492 and 1504 how many voyages did Columbus make between Spain and the Americas? 

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Answer

Four

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Question

During which voyage did Columbus finally make landfall on the continent of South America? 

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Answer

The Third Voyage from 1498-1500

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Question

The lasting impact of Columbus's voyage is the trade of flora, fauna, people, ideas, and diseases in the decades following his 1492 voyage. What is this event called? 

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Answer

The Columbian Exchange 

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