By Luke Morales
The Columbian Exchange, which began in the late 15th century, can be described as the movement of life in both directions across the Atlantic—from Eurasia and Africa to the Americas, and from the Americas to Eurasia and Africa. Life forms transported by the Exchange include plants, animals, and diseases, and it resulted in effects both crippling and beneficial to the respective populations. It is important to also note that the Columbian Exchange gave rise to the Atlantic slave trade: the gross abuse and exploitation of African populations for economic gain. However, this topic alone warrants an entire discussion, so to avoid doing it injustice, I will not be addressing the slave trade in this article. This article will be focusing on the Exchange’s environmental effects on the Americas specifically and how it has affected Indigenous communities.
The Americas benefitted from the Columbian Exchange in many ways regarding fauna. The many animals it received contributed to great environmental and life changes throughout the Americas. For example, according to Shawn Miller, professor of history at Brigham Young University, pigs were adopted by many Indigenous populations because they were fairly easy to manage and breed (Miller, 2007). Chickens were also adopted by these populations, prized for their eggs (Miller, 2007). Other animals transported to the Americas through the Exchange, according to J.R. McNeill, professor at Georgetown University, include horses, pigs, cattle, goats, sheep, and several other species, and horses proved to be one of the Exchange’s most essential contributions (McNeill, 2019). The widespread introduction of horses aided the Native Americans of the North American prairies, for example: “On horseback, they could hunt bison (buffalo) more rewardingly” (McNeill, 2019). Horses and oxen also made plowing feasible in the Americas for the first time, as they offered a new source of pulling power (McNeill, 2019).
Flora was beneficial to the Americas as well, with one of the most notable introductions being bananas from Asia. Bananas offered significantly more calories per acre than wheat and potatoes—about 130 times and 44 times, respectively (Miller, 2007). These introductions allowed for an excess of food, which resulted in a decrease of starvation-related deaths among the Indigenous populations (Miller, 2007). Other imported plants include sugar, coffee, wheat, rice, rye, and barley. “Some of these grains—rye, for example—grew well in climates too cold for corn, so the new crops helped to expand the special footprint of faming in both North and South America” (McNeill, 2019). Until the mid-1800s, drug crops such as sugar and coffee, alongside tobacco and cotton, proved the most important plant introductions to the Americas: “they formed the heart of a plantation complex that stretched from the Chesapeake to Brazil” (McNeill, 2019). And being that there were no natural predators upon their arrival, flora was able to reproduce and spread rapidly, impacting the environment in profound ways.
Despite the many benefits to the American populations provided by the new flora and fauna, there were also some negative environmental consequences. For example, as flora and fauna grew rapidly, their rising numbers consumed resources at an unsustainable rate (Miller, 2007). In more vulnerable areas like the Caribbean, livestock caused irreversible damages to vegetation and water resources, which permanently ruined the soils for Indigenous farming (Miller, 2007). It is important to note, however, that though the debate continues over the impact of livestock on the resources of the Americas, both flora and fauna experienced a net gain by the Exchange (Miller, 2007).
It is impossible to discuss the benefits of the Columbian Exchange on the Americas without also acknowledging the devastation it caused among the Indigenous populations, however. Before the natives of the Americas could even reap the rewards of the Exchange, they were faced with mass extinction due to the introduction of never-before-seen diseases from the other side of the Atlantic. Epidemics brought to these populations from Eurasia and Africa include smallpox, measles, influenza, and typhus. Even the common cold could prove devastating among the Indigenous communities. By the late 1500s, 50 million of America’s native populations had died, leaving only 5 million survivors (Miller, 2007). In the Caribbean, mortalities reached 99%, and many smaller islands were completely wiped out (Miller, 2007). By 1550, the city of Zempoala, once home to more than 100,000 citizens, was left with only 25 native inhabitants (Miller, 2007). The near extinction of native peoples gave Europeans the opportunity to colonize more easily.
Colonization as a result of the Columbian Exchange paved the way for worldwide cultural revolution. It is responsible for the success of Brazil’s coffee industry; the boom of silver mining, with 85% of the world’s silver coming from Latin America at one point; and the vastness of the sugar industry (Miller, 2007). The Exchange’s negative consequences are still affecting us today, however, one of the reasons being that it allowed for colonization of the Americas. A consequence of this colonization was—and is—the manipulation, displacement, and death of Indigenous populations. Nowadays, for example, countries such as Brazil and Peru continue to displace the Indigenous who consider the Amazon their home by means of deforestation and illegal mining. Even the COVID-19 pandemic—a result of transatlantic travel—is proving to be especially detrimental to Indigenous people everywhere (United Nations, n.d.). We must ask ourselves whether there are governments who purposely choose not to learn from the mistakes over the past few centuries for monetary gain. Indigenous populations and culture are taken for granted to this day, and until these governments stop allowing history to repeat itself, the extinction of the Indigenous—and not only those residing in the Amazon— will be on all of our hands.
Luke Morales (he/him/his) is a sophomore from Bucks County, PA pursuing a major in Enlish writing, a minor in Portuguese, and a certificate in Latin American Studies. When writing nonfiction, Luke likes to write about things relating to literature, equality, and current events. In his free time, he loves to read, write, play videogames, and watch a ton of TV.
McNeill, J.R. (2019). Columbian Exchange. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Columbian-exchange
Miller, S. (2007). An Environmental History of Latin America. Cambridge University Press.
Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (n.d.). COVID-19 and Indigenous peoples. United Nations. https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/covid-19.html