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Wednesday, November 14, 2012


About 200 million years ago, a single land mass existed on the surface of the earth, called Pangaea. It was a super-continent surrounded by a super-ocean called Panthalassa.  Because of plate tectonic activity, Pangaea began to break up into the continents we know today. The Americas and Eurasia drifted apart (and other continents also broke away) over the next 135 million years, and it was nearly complete about 65 million years ago. The final stages of the break up are still occurring, however, in the Red Sea and on East Africa’s Rift.

Most modern plant and animal species evolved on one continent or another, only occasionally occupying more than one at any time. Human beings also evolved. After migrations across land and ice bridges, modern human civilizations developed in distinct ways on different continents.

As these long isolated societies grew, it was inevitable that contact with people on a different continent would occur. Because of our prevailing “European-centric” perspective, the beginning of serious physical and cultural exchange is considered to begin with Columbus’ journey to the New World. This mass exchange of goods and ideas has come to be known as the “Columbian Exchange” beginning in the 16th Century and extending through the 19th Century. The way of life for peoples on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean would be changed forever as exploration and commerce crossed the ocean. Nomadic Native-American lifestyles turned toward domestication, and Eurasians developed new industries with the raw materials from the Americas.
The Columbian Exchange may be the single most important event in the modern history of the world. It largely determined what language you speak, what nation you lived in, and why you eat the food you do. It has been said that, “Spanish soldiers did less to defeat the Inca and Aztecs than smallpox did. That Divine Providence did less to bless the Puritans with good health than their own immune systems did.” The Columbian Exchange ultimately determined who would live and who would die.

The traded items that comprise the Columbian Exchange are traditionally broken down into four categories that include domesticated animals, domesticated plants, infectious diseases, and culture/technology. It was never an even exchange. Either the Eurasians or the native populations of the Americas would benefit more.

Clearly, more species of domesticated animals were brought to the Americas than were returned to Eurasia. Included among the animals moving to the American continents were the chicken, cat, cow, donkey, goat, goose, honey bee, rabbit, pig, sheep, and (even though they existed in the Western Hemisphere prior to human civilization) the horse and the camel. Domesticated animals that were transported to Eurasia included the alpaca, guinea pig, llama, and turkey.

Exchanges of domesticated plant species were closer to an even trade. Moving westward from Eurasia was the almond, apple, banana, barley, cantaloupe, carrot, cinnamon, coffee, garlic, grape, lettuce, oats, onion, pea, rice, sugarcane, and tea. Plants domesticated in the Americas then brought to Eurasia included beans, bell peppers, blueberries, cashews, cranberries, cocoa, cotton, corn, peanuts, pineapples, potatoes, pumpkins, rubber, strawberries, tobacco, tomatoes, vanilla, and zucchinis.

The final two categories were, without a doubt, detrimental to Native American peoples. While syphilis moved to Eurasia, the following infectious diseases decimated New World populations who had no natural immunities: chicken pox, cholera, influenza, leprosy, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhoid, typhus, yellow fever, the plague, malaria, and even the common cold.

Culture and technology represent the sharpest differences between the peoples of the Old World and the people of the New World. Indigenous American systems of collective economic production did not conform to the Eurasian emphasis on individual accumulation, and the tensions generated have deep roots in the colonization process. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an activist from the Philippines wrote, “Industrialized culture regards our values as unscientific obstacles to modernization and worthy of ridicule, suppression, and denigration. The industrial world views our political and social traditions as dangerous, and our consensus decision-making as antithetical to the capitalist hallmarks of individualism and private property.” 

Whether the Columbian Exchange was beneficial or not, it was certainly unavoidable. Discovery, exploitation, subjugation, and transformation of the strong over the weak are distinctly human phenomena.

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