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The Columbian Exchange was a dramatically widespread exchange of animals, foods, human populations (including slaves), communicable diseases, and ideas between the Eastern and Westernmarker hemispheres that occurred after Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. It was one of the most significant events concerning ecology, agriculture, and culture in all of human history. Christopher Columbus' first voyage launched an era of large-scale contact between the Old and the New Worlds that resulted in this ecological revolution: hence the name "Columbian" Exchange.

The Columbian Exchange greatly affected almost every society on earth. New diseases introduced by Europeans (many of which diseases had originated in Asia) to which indigenous people had no immunity, depopulated many cultures. By some estimates, nearly 80 percent of the native population of the Americas was wiped out from the introduction of Eurasian diseases.

On the other hand, the contact between the two areas circulated a wide variety of new crops and livestock which supported increases in population. Explorers returned to Europe with maize, potatoes, and tomatoes, which became very important crops in Eurasia by the 18th century. Similarly, Europeans introduced manioc and the peanut to tropical Southeast Asia and West Africa, where they flourished and supported growth in populations on soils that otherwise would not produce large yields.


This exchange of plants and animals transformed European, American, African, and Asian ways of life. Of the world's top 26 crops, measured by weight of production, eight originated in the Americas. One third of the crop value within the United States depends on foods that were first grown in the Americas.

New foods became staples of human diets, and new growing regions opened up for crops. For example, before AD 1000, potatoes were not grown outside of South America. By the 1840s, Irelandmarker was so dependent on the potato that a diseased crop led to the devastating Irish Potato Famine. Since being introduced by 16th century Portuguese traders, who brought them from the Americas, maize and manioc replaced traditional African crops as the continent’s most important staple food crops. New crops that had come to Asia from the Americas via Spanish colonizers in the 16th century, including maize and sweet potatoes, contributed to the population growth in Asia, too.

One of the first European exports, the horse, changed the lives of many Native American tribes on the Great Plainsmarker, allowing them to shift to a nomadic lifestyle based on hunting bison on horseback. Tomato sauce, made from New World tomatoes, became an Italianmarker trademark, while coffee from Africa and sugar cane from Asia became the main crops of extensive Latin American plantations. Introduced to Indiamarker by the Portuguese, the chili/paprika from South America is today an integral part of Indian cuisine.

Before the Columbian Exchange, there were no orange in Floridamarker, no bananas in Ecuadormarker, no paprika in Hungarymarker, no tomatoes in Italymarker, no coffee in Colombiamarker, no pineapples in Hawaiimarker, no rubber trees in Africa, no cattle in Texasmarker, no donkeys in Mexicomarker, no chili peppers in Thailandmarker and Indiamarker, no cigarettes in Francemarker, and no chocolate in Switzerlandmarker. The dandelion was brought to America by European for use as an herb.

Before regular communication had been established between the two hemispheres, the varieties of domesticated animals and infectious diseases, such as smallpox, were strikingly larger in the Old World than in the New, in part because many migrated west or were brought by traders from Asia, so diseases of two continents were suffered by all. "Old World" diseases had a devastating impact on Native American populations because they had no natural immunity to the new diseases. While Europeans and Asians were affected by them, their endemic status in those areas caused some people to build immunity. The smallpox epidemics probably resulted in the largest death tolls for Native Americans.

Scarcely any society on earth remained unaffected by this global ecological exchange.

Pre-Columbian Distribution of Native Organisms with Close Ties to Humans
Type of organism Old World to New World New World to Old World
Domesticated animals
Domesticated plants
Infectious diseases

Unintentional introductions

In addition to the diseases mentioned above, many species of organisms were introduced to new habitats on the other side of the world accidentally or incidentally. These include such animals as brown rats, earthworms (apparently absent from parts of the pre-Columbian New World), and zebra mussels, which arrived on ships.

Plants also were introduced by chance, including such weeds as tumbleweed and wild oats. Some plants introduced intentionally, such as kudzu brought from Japanmarker to the United States in 1894 to help control soil erosion, have been found to be invasive pests in the new environment. Even fungi have been transported, such as the one responsible for Dutch elm disease. Some of these species have become serious nuisances upon being established in new environments.

Plants introduced to Europe after 1492 are called Neophytes, whereas plants that made it over the sea before that date are called Archaeophytes.

See also


  1. "The Impact of the Potato", History Magazine
  2. "Super-Sized Cassava Plants May Help Fight Hunger In Africa", The Ohio State University
  3. "Maize Streak Virus-Resistant Transgenic Maize: an African solution to an African Problem", Scitizen, August 7, 2007
  4. "China's Population: Readings and Maps", Columbia University, East Asian Curriculum Project
  5. "The Story Of... Smallpox – and other Deadly Eurasian Germs", Guns, Germs and Steel, PBS


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