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What is the Columbian Exchange?

By Paul Woods
Updated: May 17, 2024

The Columbian Exchange is the name given to the era in which livestock, agricultural products, and cultural influences moved between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas in 1492 is considered the start of the era, and as a result of the interaction, societies in both hemispheres benefited from new products and suffered from new diseases. Author and historian Dr. Alfred Crosby is credited with developing the term, which was the title of his 1972 book on the subject.

A major impact of this era was the introduction of new agriculture crops in each hemisphere. Before Columbus returned from the New World, for example, there were no potatoes grown outside of the Americas, but within a view centuries, potatoes were among Ireland’s food staples. They also became an important ingredient for Russian vodka, which became a major export for that nation. Chocolate also made its way from the Americas and became quite popular in Europe.

Crops such as maize and peanuts were transported by the Portuguese to Africa. These hardy plants could be grown in areas of southern Africa that previously could not sustain agricultural cultivation. Some historians credit the introduction of these crops with increasing the population of the region.

Livestock brought from Europe to the Americas also had a major impact. The Spanish introduced horses to the Western Hemisphere and are credited by some with creating a nomadic lifestyle for many native tribes. Cattle were brought by the Europeans, as well. This allowed people in Texas to raise livestock on land that previously had been too harsh for farming.

Diseases were an unintended negative impact of the Columbian Exchange. The Europeans carried germs to which they had built up immunity, but the people of the Americas had built up no immunity, and whole populations were decimated as a result. Some historians estimate that 50 to 90% of some South American civilizations were wiped out. Others believe that small pox brought from Europe was the single largest cause of death among Native Americans in North America.

The period also was a time of cultural movement. In the early part of the era, between 1492 and 1539, the movement of Spaniards to the Americas was primarily from the Andalucia region of Spain. The impact of that was felt in the architecture, arts, and language of the areas where they settled.

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Discussion Comments
By anon242650 — On Jan 24, 2012

This info was very helpful. I'm using it to write an essay, as well.

By David09 — On Dec 09, 2011

@miriam98 - I don’t know about that. Do I need to speak Russian to enjoy vodka? I personally believe that America was slow to assimilate traditions of the other cultures, with the exception of some cultures like the Native Americans.

America was busy forging out its own identity and the Columbian Exchange was simply seen as the free flow of commerce; they were just doing business. It did seem to affect the arts from what the article says, but I am talking about the common man.

I think he was more concerned about the American identity, the City on a Hill and so forth, and the countries from which he emigrated were places to be left behind, not embraced.

I suppose mine is a more cynical outlook but I think the real multiculturalism has happened in the common era, where people have consciously made the decision to openly embrace and celebrate other cultures and their traditions.

By miriam98 — On Dec 08, 2011

It seems that the Columbian Exchange was the birth of a kind of multiculturalism. With goods going to and fro from the Eastern and Western hemispheres, cultural traditions must have been passed along with them.

After all, these goods are rooted in a rich cultural heritage. I imagine that it helped spur on the desire to learn new languages and understand other countries and races.

By discographer — On Dec 08, 2011

@feruze, @burcidi-- I do agree with your comments, but what about all the Columbian Exchange diseases that Europe brought to the Americas?

I read that about half of the entire Native American population in the Americas were wiped out from diseases that Europeans brought. There is a long list of it and it includes things like smallpox, chicken pox, malaria, flu, cholera and typhoid! This is one of the reasons for why the slave trade to the Americas started, because there weren't enough people left for work.

The Native Americans also passed a few things to Europeans like syphilis, but Native Americans definitely had it much worse.

Some say that the origins of some of the flu strains that we're dealing with today, like bird flu and swine flu, go all the way back to the European settlers. Before the world starts thanking Europe for tomatoes and potatoes, I think we need to think about the down-sides of the Columbian Exchange as well.

By burcidi — On Dec 07, 2011

@feruze-- I'm not sure about globalization but I definitely understand the changes that Columbian Exchange caused in the world. Most of us don't realize how it has affected our life and our cuisine.

I, for example, am from Turkey and Turkish cuisine uses tomatoes, particularly tomato paste extensively. Pretty much 2/3 of our home-cooked meals, if not more, have tomato paste in it.

I think this is pretty amazing because tomatoes were not brought to the European continent until the 1500s. It was brought to Turkish lands even later, in the early 1800s. In this considerably brief time-frame, tomatoes have managed to become a staple and essential in Turkish cooking.

The same goes for Italy, where the Italian sauces and pizzas would not have been possible without tomatoes. Potatoes also became the staple food for Ireland and it was able to manage through difficult times thanks to it.

Can you imagine, what these cultures would look like today if the Columbian Exchange never took place?

I think it's a really interesting subject. I haven't read Dr. Alfred Crosby's book "Columbian Exchange" but I plan on doing so soon. I want to learn more about it.

By bear78 — On Dec 07, 2011

I think we could say that the Columbian Exchange was the first globalization movement. I've studied about the various trade routes between Asia, Middle East and Europe in my classes before. And I know that these had a huge impact on these cultures because it allowed products, knowledge and technologies to spread to different cultures. But this was pretty much limited to this area since the Americas hadn't been discovered yet.

After the Americas were discovered and things started moving back and forth from Americas and Europe, I think real globalization started taking place. So we could say that Christopher Columbus started the Columbian Exchange, as well as globalization. I'm sure he didn't intend to trigger such a huge movement that still affects us today, but I think he can be credited with starting it.

By anon233396 — On Dec 06, 2011

That was very enlightening. I used the knowledge found here to write an essay.

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