The Lasting Effects of the Columbian Exchange During the Age of Discovery
It should no longer come as any great surprise that Columbus was not the first to discover the Americas--Carthaginians, Vikings, and even St. Brendan may have set foot on the Western Hemisphere long before Columbus crossed the Atlantic. But none of these incidental contacts made the impact that Columbus did. Columbus and company were bound to bring more than the benefits of Christianity and double entry bookkeeping to America. His voyages started the Columbian Exchange, a hemispherical swap of peoples, plants, animals and diseases that transformed not only the world he had discovered but also the one he had left.
The Old and New Worlds had been separated for millions of years before this voyage (except for periodic reconnections in the far north during the Ice Ages). This period of separation resulted in great species divergence and evolvement. There were still many similar species, such as deer and elm, but Europe had nothing like hummingbirds, rattlesnakes, and hickory and pecan trees. The differences were even greater in the southern hemispheres; the biggest mammal in Africa was the elephant, and the biggest mammal in South America was the cow-sized tapir. Both of these environmental systems struggled for a delicate sense of balance and homeostasis-- but their collision in 1492 began a whole new time of competition and struggle for dominance. The environmental impact of such a collision is enormous and should be looked at as part of our understanding of the Age of Discovery.
Thomas Jefferson once said that, " The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture." By this standard, Columbus was the greatest benefactor of all time because by bringing the agriculture of the Old and New Worlds into contact, he added many useful plants to each. He enormously increased the number of kinds of foods and quantities of food by both plant and animal sources. New food crops have enabled people to live in places where they previously had only slim means of feeding themselves. Each new cargo brought new changes to the European diet, helping to improve eating and strengthening national identities with cultural foods. Some of the exotic new crops had humble beginnings; before the tomato made its way into European diets, it was a weed in the Aztec maize fields. The potatoes which hung on to Spanish ships wasn't welcomed at first either; Europeans found it unappetizing. But packing more calories per acre than any European grain, the potato eventually became the dominant food of northern Europe's working class.
A few of the other plants that took root in the European palate was the cacao bean for chocolate, lima beans, corn, peanuts, pumpkins, squash, cashews, and pineapples. Sunflowers, petunias, marigolds and poinsettias also made their way to Europe. Several other plants of importance include quinine,...