Columbian Exchange

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The Columbian Exchange is a term coined by historians in the 1970s to cover widespread exchange of foods, plants, livestock, people, communicable diseases, and ideas between Eurasia (the Old World") and the Americas (the "New World") after Christopher Columbus's discovery in 1492 launched an era of exploration.


The almost total isolation between the two meant that when Columbus initiated travel back and forth, new and devastating germs traveled along. Far more Europeans traveled the ships, so the disease flow was primarily from east to west - that is, from Europe to the New World.

The native populations of the Western Hemisphere were especially vulnerable to the new diseases of smallpox and measles. The Indians had not built up immunity over the centuries, and so the death toll was horrific. In the territory that became the United States, the population of many tribes fell by 50% and more. When a tribe suddenly loses more than half its population, it seldom is able to survive as an entity. The survivors die off rapidly or join other tribes. Thus many tribes vanished completely.

Europe may have received syphilis in turn, since the first reports of this venereal disease came around 1500.

New foods

The Columbian Exchange dramatically changed the kinds of foods eaten in Mexico and Latin America. Spaniards brought cattle, hogs, poultry, rice, sugar and wheat. This resulted in new ingredients such as beef, pork, chicken, wheat-based bread, dairy products, rice, animal fat, sugar, and spices. These improved nutrition and added to food diversity. New ingredients were blended with old ones such as corn, beans, tomatoes, and chocolate to produce new combinations and a new fusion food. Thus Old World pork and cheese were combined with New World corn tortillas. Old World animal fat was combined with New World beans. Old World sugar, milk, and cinnamon were combined with New World cacao beans to produce hot chocolate.

Further reading

  • Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange (2nd ed. 2003) excerpt and text search
    • Crosby, Alfred W. "The Columbian Exchange: Plants, Animals, and Disease between the Old and New Worlds," (2001) online edition
  • Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (1986).
  • Kiple, Kenneth F. The Cambridge World History of Food. (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Kiple, Kenneth F. The Cambridge World History of Human Disease. (1993). excerpt and text search
  • Grennes, Thomas. "The Columbian Exchange and the Reversal of Fortune" CATO Journal 2007 27(1): 91-107, survey by conservative scholar in EBSCO

See also