The Columbian Exchange by Bill and Anna Daly
In 1492, all silk and spices going to Spain had to pass through Muslim lands. This meant that the Muslims made money on all the silk and spices sold in Spain. Catholic Spain hated giving money to the Muslims. Here is a PBS-like dramatization of a typical trading conversation between a fifteenth century Spaniard and Muslim. Notice that they refer to the lack of sewers at the time. None of us could visit a fifteenth century city or village without losing our lunch.
Christopher Columbus told the queen of Spain that he could get to China and India by sailing around the world. That way, they could buy silk and spices for less money and not have to give any money to the Muslims. The queen’s scientists told her that a man named Eratosthenes had figured out how big the earth was 250 years before Jesus was born. They said there was no way that Columbus could sail around the earth without stopping and that she should ignore him because he was crazy. The queen decided to let Columbus try anyway. Columbus was wrong about the size of the earth, but luckily for him, he hit a continent before he was halfway around the world. Columbus had discovered the America’s by accident. This discovery changed the world more than any other event since people started farming.
It changed the world because people started to sail back and forth between the Old world (Eurasia and Africa) and the New world ( the Americas). As they did so, they brought plants and animals from the Old world to the New world and brought plants and animals from the New world to the Old world. It was as if the two worlds were trading organisms. We call this trade of organisms The Columbian Exchange. Although the Columbian Exchange is about all organisms (including the diseases that killed up to 90% of all Native Americans), we are going to write only about the exchange of organisms that we eat. This exchange changed the diets of people around the world and helped create the cuisines that we think about when we think about different countries.
When the Europeans first arrived, the only domesticated animals in the Americas were dogs, turkey, llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs. None of these, except turkeys, could be used as a food source, so the Europeans brought pigs, sheep’s, goats, and cattle. They also brought horses to help them plow their fields and to be used for their transportation.
It is interesting to think that the All-American-Meals (steaks and hamburgers) are from Europe. The American cuisine was not the only one that was changed by The Columbian Exchange. Imagine Mexican food without beef, chicken, cheese, and cumin; all of which are from the old world. Imagine Italian food without tomatoes. Imagine Chinese, Indian, or Tai foods without peppers. Imagine Germany or Great Britain without the potato. We are going to provide maps that show the foods that traveled both ways. The exchange of organisms was very lopsided even if the list might seem somewhat equal at first glance. Crops going from the New world to the Old world did not change the landscape of the Old world. Corn, peppers, and potatoes may have taken the place of some wheat and barley crops, but those crops were already in place. Organisms coming from the Old world to the New world completely changed the landscape of the America’s. Forests were cut and grasslands were tilled to plant European crops as well. Pigs, sheep, cattle, and horses changed the land with their grazing. Even the varieties of humans living in the Americas has changed since Columbus’ first visit.