The Columbian Exchange

After Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Caribbean Islands in 1492, a phenomenon known as the Columbian Exchange began to take hold. Essentially, the Columbian Exchange refers to the exchanging of goods, ideas, and resources between the Old World and the New World in the decades following Columbus’s expedition. The Old and New Worlds referred to the hemispheres of the globe, with the Old referring to the Eastern Hemisphere (present-day Europe, Africa, and Asia) and the New referring to the Western Hemisphere (the Americas). This period of exchange was most notable in the 1500s and 1600s. 

The impact it had between the two hemispheres can be viewed as both positive and negative. People were introduced to new foods, new ways of life, and different elements of culture, yet on the other hand, it also exposed groups of people to diseases that their bodies had never encountered, and therefore could not fight off. 

In terms of animals, the Old World contributed livestock such as cows, sheep, pigs, and horses. These animals thrived on the vast, grassy plains of North America, and Native Americans were also introduced to new protein sources through the animal meat. Additionally, they were able to use the hides of the animals to make clothing and shelter. Horses, in particular, proved exceptionally useful to the Native Americans, as they were able to quicken the speed with which they hunted other animals, such as buffalo, for food and resources.

In exchange, the New World contributed turkeys and llamas. By way of crops, the Old World introduced the Western Hemisphere to bananas, grapes, oranges, peaches, grains, and olives. They also contributed luxuries such as honey, sugar, and coffee. The New World introduced the Eastern Hemisphere to vanilla, tobacco, beans, cacao (which can be harvested to make chocolate), pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, pepper, avocados, and peanuts. Corn has been of notable importance, as it is a crop that is practically resistant to drought, making it easy to grow in the arid climates throughout Africa. 

The unfortunate component of the exchange was indeed the spreading of new germs and diseases from the Old World to the New World. From the Western Hemisphere, sailors and explorers brought illnesses such as smallpox and malaria. Native Americans who were living in the Eastern Hemisphere had never been exposed to these diseases, and thus their bodies had built up no immunities to them. Consequently, millions of native peoples perished.   

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