World History 2 68 - 5.2.2 The Columbian Exchange

The impact of Portuguese and Spanish exploration and settlement went far beyond the political and economic implications. The so-called Columbian Exchange began with the first contact between native peoples and Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492. This phrase refers to the back-and-forth flow of plants, animals, and diseases between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Far more than physical products were traded, however. Ideas, religious practices, enslaved peoples, and cultural traditions also crossed the Atlantic to reshape, blend, and sometimes destroy various civilizations in the process.

The world into which Columbus stepped in 1492 was just as complex, diverse, and dangerous as the one he left behind. In the Americas, empires rose and fell, people married and raised families, individuals sought to better their lives by moving and innovating. But key differences shaped the collisions to come. One of the most fundamental was the perception of human nature and human origins. For Europeans, the world, its history, and its progression were linear. Just as the Christian Bible described, in the beginning there was darkness. Then God created light along with the world, and one day that world would come to an end. This belief influenced Europeans’ perception that time progressed in a straight line along which humans were always moving forward. All things had a beginning, a point or climax, and an ending.

But for many Indigenous peoples, the world was cyclical and infinite. The Aztecs, for example, believed that the world in which they lived was but the latest in a series of worlds that had been created and destroyed. Their world would continue to exist only so long as they fed the sun with the blood of sacrificial victims. In Indigenous concepts of the cosmos, no hard separations existed between humans and nature, or between spiritual and human realms. Many religious belief systems were animistic, meaning the spiritual world resided not just in humans but also in animals, plants, and even rocks. This belief was very different from monotheism, in which all spiritual power resided in one single divine being. Indigenous religions did not focus on sin or on the nature of good and evil. Instead, the spiritual world was a place full of power that humans could harness for either good or evil. Though their specific beliefs varied widely, all Indigenous groups in the Western Hemisphere held these basic views about their existence and their relationship to others and to the world.

Like humans, animals, and plants, the earth possessed sacred power; therefore, it could not be owned. The concept of owning land seemed nonsensical to many Indigenous groups, and their corresponding lack of emphasis on private property was one reason Europeans sometimes found it easy to lay claim to lands inhabited by native peoples.

Indigenous Americans also differed from Europeans of the 1400s in their approach to gender. While Indigenous women did complete some of the same tasks as European women, such as cooking, making clothing, and raising children, they also took part in activities that Europeans believed should be done by men and that in Europe usually were. For example, in many Indigenous societies, women were the principal farmers and built the family’s dwelling. In many groups, women were revered as imbued with sacred powers to heal and to create. This power also gave them a strong voice in the leadership of their communities, and in some of these, women sat on tribal councils. Among the Iroquois of North America, for example, women often attended tribal councils to advise male clan representatives, and women chose the tribe’s male leaders. Among the Wampanoag of southern New England, women could serve as tribal leaders.

In many tribes, individuals who did not accept the roles traditionally assigned to people of their sex had far more freedom to live as they desired than did such people in Europe. Women who wished to live as men and men who wished to live and dress as women did not necessarily face punishment or maltreatment as long as they contributed to society in other ways. For example, in some societies, women became hunters and warriors. In many societies, men who felt they had been born with the souls of women dressed as women, pursued women’s occupations, and became the second or third wives of other men. Such men were often regarded as possessing great spiritual power and were treated with respect.

When Columbus arrived, the Indigenous population of the entire Western Hemisphere likely numbered around seventy-five million (compared to Europe’s population of probably around seventy million), although historians’ estimates vary greatly. Indigenous peoples made up more than six hundred groups or tribes in North America alone. Some, such as the Inuit and the Dene, were mostly hunter-gatherers in cold climates inhospitable to farming. Others farther south, such as the Puebloans and the Creek, farmed extensively, growing maize as the staple of their food economies. These groups often adopted political organizations practical for their environment. Hunter-gatherers such as the Apache lived as small bands of unified family units with a designated leader. Among township societies such as the Iroquois, groups of towns joined to form political confederacies. In the Aztec and Inca empires, large urban populations were ruled by monarchs.

As part of the Columbian Exchange, Europeans introduced to the Americas the crops they were familiar with at home, including wheat; the Vitis vinifera species of grape; fruits such as pears, peaches, and many varieties of apples; and vegetables such as onions and garlic. The first two were especially important for the Spanish and Portuguese. Wheat was needed to make the communion wafers that were a necessary part of the Roman Catholic mass, and European grapes were needed to make wine for the same ceremony. For the most part, Native Americans had little interest in adopting European foods, but the arrival of nonedible resources created an immediate impact. Metal cookware and metal weaponry gave great power to those who chose to adopt them.

European, Asian, and African societies also changed as new plant life was brought eastward across the Atlantic. Indigenous peoples in North America had relied on maize (corn) for thousands of years, and varieties of potatoes, including sweet potatoes, had long been staples among Indigenous peoples in South America. Along with these foods, tomatoes, chili peppers, vanilla, manioc, pineapples, and peanuts were introduced to and became culinary staples of nations in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Chocolate, which had been consumed in liquid form by the Aztec and the Maya, and tobacco, another product from the Americas, became especially popular in Europe (Figure 5.14).

The drawing shows a barefoot woman in a long, striped dress with colorful trim. She holds a container high in the air with both arms and pours a brown liquid from it into a brown container with red drawings located on the floor at her feet.
Figure 5.14 Chocolate was one of the most popular crops introduced from the Americas to the rest of the world. In this image from the Tudela Codex, created c. 1553, an Aztec woman pours liquefied chocolate from one container into another to make it frothy. (credit: “Mujer vertiendo chocolate - Codex Tudela” by Museo de América/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

Read “How the Chili Pepper Conquered China” to learn about the far-reaching effects on China of the introduction of chilies from the Americas.

Coffee and sugar cane, introduced to the Americas by Europeans, grew exceedingly well in the tropical climates of the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and the southernmost portions of North America. The widespread adoption of these foods in the rest of the world began a chain reaction of increased demand for them and for agricultural labor. This need for labor eventually led to the plantation-style slavery that took hold in parts of the United States, islands in the Caribbean, and areas of South America such as Brazil.

Plant life was not the only item exchanged across the Atlantic; a variety of animals accompanied Europeans as they journeyed across the ocean and back. Horses, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and chickens all made the Atlantic crossing to the Americas. These animals transformed the life of many Indigenous communities. In North America, tribes such as the Lakota moved onto the Great Plains and created a way of life based on hunting bison following their adoption of the horse. The Navajo became sheep herders and expert weavers of woolen textiles. Tribes in Mexico and Central and South America began to raise chickens and goats, which provided valuable sources of protein.

Deadly pathogens also made the crossing to the Americas and caused one of the worst disease-based disasters in history. Given limited understanding of epidemic science, no one realized that native peoples had virtually none of the resistance and immunity Europeans had developed to infectious diseases, because the animals that originally spawned them (and from which they had jumped to humans) simply did not exist in the Americas (Figure 5.15). When these diseases were brought by Europeans and the enslaved Africans who often accompanied them, native peoples without natural immunity who contracted them experienced a death rate that some scholars estimate was as high as 95 percent.

A drawing is divided into two sections on the left side and three sections on the right. The top left section shows a person with spots all over their body sitting wrapped in a blanket. A person sits across from them in a long shirt and is shown coughing. In the bottom left section a person covered with a blanket with spots all over their body is laying on a bed and is shown coughing. In the right top section, a person with spots all over their body is shown laying on a bed completely covered in a blanket. In the middle picture a similar person is shown partially uncovered, and in the bottom section is shown halfway uncovered.
Figure 5.15 This fifteenth-century image from the Florentine Codex captures the misery experienced by the Indigenous peoples of Mexico following the spread of infectious disease. (credit: “Florentine Codex BK12 F54 smallpox” by Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Lack of exposure to European livestock or European diseases is not the sole reason the Indigenous peoples of the Americas died in such large numbers, however. Smallpox, typhus, measles, bubonic plague, influenza, salmonella, and other diseases took the lives of millions of people throughout the Americas because of the destruction wrought by Europeans. European settlers often allowed their livestock to roam loose, and these animals, especially hogs, wreaked havoc on the crops planted by Indigenous peoples. In places where the Spanish conducted slave raids, Indigenous people often went into hiding, refusing to venture out to farm, fish, or tend their fields for fear of being captured. The resulting malnutrition weakened their immune systems, making it harder for them to fight off infectious diseases, even those with which their bodies were familiar. In heavily settled, densely populated regions, infectious diseases spread rapidly. Bodies weakened by one disease easily succumbed to subsequent infections.

Other factors also contributed to depopulation across the Western continents. Groups intent on colonizing, such as the Spanish in New Spain, wanted to establish economies that exported wealth and materials to the home country. To that end, the infrastructure they built intentionally depleted local environments and deprived Indigenous peoples of the natural resources within their lands, including fertile soil, water, timber, and precious metals. When Indigenous populations did not accept these economic conditions, they were met with violence against themselves and their families.

Given violence, exile, enslavement, and a high death rate from disease, the original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere experienced a cataclysm during the sixteenth century. They still resisted European incursions, however, beginning a centuries-long struggle with echoes in the present day. Within a few months of his exploring the Caribbean region, for example, Native leaders began directing Columbus to other islands, deflecting the negative consequences that followed the arrival of Europeans. Sometimes Indigenous groups chose violence to resist European violence.

Not all Indigenous peoples reacted with violence, however. During the often-brutal colonization of the Western Hemisphere, many systems of gender, religious beliefs, and societal organization that existed in the Americas did collapse, while others merged or changed, creating new hybrid societies across the American continents and the Caribbean islands. But many Indigenous groups chose to incorporate facets of European material culture, such as tools and weapons, into their own in ways that allowed for their survival. For example, the Comanche, a largely hunter-gatherer group, adopted the Spanish horses brought by the conquistadors (Figure 5.16). Within a few generations, the combination of horses and metal weaponry transformed the Comanche into an empire that negotiated as equals with the Spanish, the British, and the French.

A painting shows three American Indians with feathers in their hair and brown pants with feathers up and down the sides riding on horses on a green hilly area. Two of them use a bow and arrow to shoot at bison while the third is holding a long spear. The bison run throughout the grassy mountains. One bison in front has an arrow in his side and is bleeding as he runs.
Figure 5.16 In this 1844 hand-colored lithograph by George Catlin, North American Plains Indians pursue bison on horseback. Before the arrival of horses with the Spanish, a life on the Great Plains based entirely on the hunting of bison had not been possible. (credit: “Buffalo hunt” by Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Finally, not all Atlantic commerce and settlement flowed from east to west. Indigenous people also took advantage of the Columbian Exchange and traveled to Europe seeking ways to help themselves and their people. By the seventeenth century, dozens of Indigenous negotiators had gone to Europe to appeal directly to the monarchs for aid and for military and economic benefits. Their efforts reveal the ways in which Indigenous groups all over the Atlantic World hoped to shape their future on their own terms.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax