Aug 8, 2017

Columbian Exchange, the Trade of Organisms that Changed the World

I am not going to censor myself
to comfort your ignorance.

Jon Stewart

Foods from old and new world.
Amazing what research one does when there is a storm brewing outside.  We’ve had more than 7.5 inches of rain in the last 18 hours thanks to Tropical Storm Franklin.

Tropical Storm Franklin
What would the cuisine of Hungary be like without paprika, Italy lacking tomatoes, Ireland or Germany deprived of potatoes, Thailand short of chili peppers, or Switzerland’s sans chocolate?

Would we recognize the landscapes of Florida without orange orchards, Ecuador not graced with banana fields, Colombia missing the aroma of coffee, or Hawaii’s rolling hills not enhanced with the glow of pineapples?

We take for granted that wheat, steak and burgers are American, sugar Caribbean, or peanuts and cassavas African, but are they?

After Columbus landed in the New World, looking for spices, trades intensified between the two worlds, Old and New, bringing significant changes to agriculture, cooking, life, health, and culture.

Crops from the New World (the Americas) did not change the landscape of the Old World (Eurasia and Africa).  Corn, peppers, and potatoes took the place of already established fields growing barley or wheat. 

Trading the other way however, completely changed the land.  In the New World, forests were cut and grasslands were tilled to plant.  New animals (cattle, pigs, sheep, horses, goats, donkeys, mules, chickens, cats, large dogs, bees) grazed what used to be wilderness.  Together they brought to extinction many organisms by homogenizing the biological landscape. 

From Old to New
The Americas had llamas as their only beast of burden but they couldn’t carry more than 100 pounds (45 kilos).  When horses carrying at least 2.5 times that weight were brought over to the New World, they completely changed the way people hunted, worked the land, and travelled.  We often associate American Indians with horses, yet they were a recent addition to their history. 

The Incas had the largest empire before Columbus came to the New World.  Near what is now Mexico City, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, was more populous, cleaner, and beautiful than Paris.  Today, many historians believe that the Americas may have been just as or more populous than Europe before the 1500’s.  What made the Americas so successful despite their lack of beast of burden was the very nutritious carbohydrate rich foods they grew. 

Their wealth in produce was offset by a poverty in domesticated animals that gave milk, cheese, clothing (wool, leather), transportation, etc. 

Corn is one of the world’s most calorie efficient grains, one of the most technological accomplishments of ancient man, a food bioengineered from the inedible teosinte grass.  Combined with potatoes and cassava, these new staples allowed Eurasians and Africans to overcome chronic food shortages.  Corn is twice as efficient a source of carbohydrates as wheat, few other plants produce so much carbohydrate, sugar, and fat.  Corn can grow in areas too wet for wheat or too dry for rice. 

The New World’s great contribution to the Old is in crop plants. Maize, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, various squashes, chilies, and manioc have become essentials in the diets of hundreds of millions of Europeans, Africans, and Asians. Their influence on Old World peoples, like that of wheat and rice on New World peoples, goes far to explain the global population explosion of the past three centuries. The Columbian Exchange has been an indispensable factor in that demographic explosion.

From New to Old
Europe on the other hand could barely feed its population with barley, wheat, onions, rye, apples, carrots, cabbage, and venison. 

In Africa today, cassava is so popular that Africans swear it comes from there.  Cassava provides more calories than any plant on earth being part of the basic diet of ½ billion people.  China and India today are the largest producers and consumers of potatoes, a useful source of vitamin C.  We have all heard of the potato famine in Ireland where that country became too dependent on one type of crop for its survival.  One disease wiping out that crop and an intense famine followed. 

The New World was much healthier than the Old World and the Columbian Exchange was very lopsided.  The New World traded great quality foods in lieu of many diseases (influenza, malaria, typhoid, smallpox – the deadliest, etc.), killing upwards of 85% of the local population over a very short period of time.  A profoundly uneven exchange.

Let it be known that more varieties of plants were originally domesticated in the Americas than in the Old World.  There are so many new food discoveries to be made in Mexico.  We are barely scratching the surface enjoying every minute of it.

A lot of food common to European cooking today – bell peppers, corn, vanilla, allspice, baking soda, baking powder, coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, molasses, string beans, kidney beans, peanuts, pumpkins, pineapple, blueberries, cranberries, turkey, maple syrup – were unheard of in a kitchen in the Middle Ages.

It’s hard to imagine German cooking without its trademark potatoes, or more so, Italian cuisine without tomatoes, but those ingredients did not appear in any European cookbooks before 1600. On the other hand, some of the ingredients did find their way to Europe before 1600 - but not into the kitchen; many modern desserts contain vanilla, but it was used in the 1500s as a scent in perfume, not as a flavoring extract in custards and cookies. Tomatoes were popular as an ornamental plant in medieval gardens rather than as additions to salads and sauces. 
These foods incredibly enriched the Spanish diet first, which by the sixteenth century was probably the most varied in Europe. 
The new world developed agriculture about 1500 years after it was first practiced in part of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. The following table illustrates the crops that were grown and the chronology of domestication.

Post-Columbian transfers of native organisms with close ties to humans
Old World to New World
New World to Old World
Domesticated animals
Cat (domestic – wild species already present)
Goat (genus Capra)
Guinea fowl
Honey bee (domestic – wild and domesticated species already present)
Rabbit (domestic)
Sheep (domestic)
Water buffalo
Guinea pig
Muscovy duck
Cultivated or beneficial plants
Bitter melon
Brassica derived vegetables:
Brussels sprouts
Collard greens
Citrus (orange, lemon, etc.)
Coriander (aka cilantro)
Hemp (including cannabis)
Oil palm
Plantain (banana)
Sugarcane and sugar beets
Yam (not sweet potato)
Açai berries
Amaranth grain
Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea)
Avocado, 5000 BC, MX
Brazil nut
Chayote (pear squash)
Chicle (key ingredient in gum)
Cocoa, 1500 BC, MX
Common bean (pinto, lima, kidney, pinto, tepary, etc.), 4000 BC, Central America
Cotton (long-staple species), 2500 BC, Peru
Culantro (asafetida)
Custard apple (cherimoya)
Feijoa (pineapple guava, Brazilian guava, guavasteen)
Guava (common)
Jerusalem artichoke (sunroot)
Leren (Calathea allouia)
Maize (corn), Guerrero, MX
Manioc (cassava, tapioca, yuca)
Maple syrup
Peanut, 5500 BC, S America
Peppers (bell, chili), 6000-4000 BC, Oaxaca, MX
Pitaya (dragon fruit)
Potato, 8000-5000 BC, Peru
Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica)
Squash, 8000 BC, Oaxaca, MX
Strawberry (commercial varieties)
Sugar-apple (sweetsop)
Sweet potato, 1500 BC, Colombia
Tomato (first used as an ornamental for a century then as food
Wild rice
Yerba mate
Infectious diseases, carrier insects
Bubonic plague
Cows (smallpox)
Chicken pox
Mosquito (malaria)
Rat (bubonic plague)
Scarlet fever
Whooping cough
Yellow fever
Chagas disease
Syphilis (disputed)

Millions of years ago, the landmass Pangaea drifted apart creating two distinct worlds. North and South America, commonly referred to as the New World, were separated from Eurasia and Africa, which are the Old World. According to Crosby, this continental shift and separation lasted so long that two distinct worlds were created. For instance, rattlesnakes evolved in the New World while vipers were present in the Old World. These two worlds were reunited when Columbus set foot in the Americas (Crosby, 2007).

Although Columbus was not the first to ‘discover’ America, he was the first to initiate an exchange of many plants, animals, and diseases between the two worlds.  “The decades following 1492 launched an unparalleled exchange of crops.  In 1972, Crosby coined the term the Columbian Exchange in his book The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Crosby used the term to mean the transferring of culture and biological organisms between the two worlds and the beginning of a homogeneous world.

The Columbian Exchange started to connect the New and Old Worlds with the transmission of ideas, plants, animals, and diseases.  Their artificial re-establishment of connections through the commingling of Old and New World plants, animals, and bacteria, is one of the more spectacular and significant ecological events of the past millennium.

As they intentionally sowed Old World crop seeds, the European settlers were unintentionally contaminating American fields with weed seed. More importantly, they were stripping and burning forests, exposing the native minor flora to direct sunlight and the hooves and teeth of Old World livestock. The native flora could not tolerate this novel stress. The imported weeds could, because they had lived with large numbers of grazing animals for thousands of years.

Food for thoughts

Potato:  One of the most important crops brought to the Old World was the potato. Nunn and Qian (2010) claim it is the crop with the largest impact on the Old World. It is a tubular with enough vitamins to prevent scurvy and enough starch and water to eat as one’s only food.

The potato is grown by planting a piece of itself. When it was taken to Spain, only one variety was taken. In Europe, they used the same variety of potato everywhere creating fields of potato clones. In South America, the Andean natives bred different potato varieties, which vary in size and color (Mann, 2011).

When the potato was brought to Europe, people were unsure of it. Some people thought it caused leprosy while others alleged it caused gas (Crosby, 1972). Others believed it to be an aphrodisiac and caused lust (Mann, 2011). In England, the wheat harvest failed in 1794 sending the price of wheat up. When the poor citizens of Europe could no longer afford wheat, they forgot the superstitions and hesitations of the potato (Pollan, 2010).

Rice: During the slave trade, ships would take native West Africans, transport them across the Atlantic, and sell them in America as slaves. Some of these slaves once grew rice in Africa and were well accustomed to farming rice and the irrigation system that rice needed to provide a high yield. Slaves with knowledge on how to grow rice were forced to work rice farms. In South Carolina, rice needed an intricate irrigation system for the rice to have enough moisture and nutrients to grow. The irrigation systems included grading the landscape so water could flow to the fields and drain from the fields. The irrigation systems used in South Carolina were like the irrigation systems used in Africa (Camey, 2001).

Bringing rice to the New World created a circle of events that the New World is still dealing with today. With rice came Africans who cared for the rice. With Africans came malaria, which many slaves were immune to but white farmers were not. This was one of many factors that helped to sustain and keep the slave trade going. The slave trade and slavery are often blamed as a factor for racism that still exists today in America.  What if rice had not been brought to the New World?  Would the slave trade have lasted so long?  With fewer breeding grounds, would mosquitoes not have flourished and spread malaria in the New World?  One can only imagine how history might be different if rice had never been brought to the New World.  Rice has had lasting effects on the New World and has changed the history of the New World.  (Mann, 2011).

Smallpox: The smallpox epidemic killed a third or more of the population in just a few months (Mann, 2011).

In a very interesting historical twist, Columbus found corn (maize) instead of gold in the New World.  Corn probably changed the world more than gold would have.  Columbus Day should possibly be a holiday commemorating and celebrating foods and ecological events with profound effects rather than just discovering the New World.

By the way – wheat comes the Old World as does steak/burgers and sugar.  Peanuts and cassava come from the New World.  Another reminder to take nothing for granted.  Keep questioning and keeping an open mind.  Even for things as mundane as food, we have a lot of pre-conceptions that are plain wrong.  I’ll be the first to admit I thought sugar was from here after seeing acres upon acres of it grown in Mexico.

Didn't find gold but corn.
Alfred W. Crosby
Table by Wikipedia

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