The Columbian Exchange: How the New World Affected the Old

By Katie Lloyd

When Columbus left to try and find an easier route to India, he would not accomplish his goal. But what he would do is set off a chain of events that would affect the entire world, from exchanging goods to beginning a precedent of brutality to Indigenous populations. Scholars posthumously call this interaction the Columbian Exchange and define it as the process of biological globalization that occurred after the transatlantic voyages in the 15th and 16th century (McNeill, 2021). 

Food from the Americas would change Africa, Asia, and Europe forever. The agricultural products of cassava and sweet potatoes improved nutrition, while cacao, chili peppers, and tomatoes increased vitamin intake. These foods also grew in soils that were previously considered unusable (Nunn & Qian, 2010). Of the five most important crops of the world today based on annual production and average yield, three are initially from the Americas (Goldschein, 2011). What countries of Africa, Asia, and Europe consider their traditional cuisines and recipes have been affected by ingredients that were domesticated in the Americas. In fact, by the end of the 1900s, a third of the food grown for consumption, was originally domesticated in the Americas (McNeill, n.d.).

Maize made vast waves as a way to feed people and animals in Afro-Eurasia. The plant was probably domesticated in Mexico around nine thousand to ten thousand years ago, although due to genetic testing, historians and scientists are starting to rethink this theory (Kistler et al, 2018 & Corn, 2021). What is known is that once it was domesticated, maize became widespread across the Americas, with different strains becoming important to different areas (Corn, 2021). In the early half of the 1500s, maize had become rooted in North Africa where it moved to Egypt then the Ottoman Empire (McNeill, n.d.). During this period, the plant also reached China via the Pacific (Ho, P.-T., 1955). In the 19th century, corn was important to Eastern and Southern Europe, and India. Additionally, in Southern Africa, the crop became the principal food staple for peasants (McNeill, n.d.).

The potato changed the world in similar ways as well. It was not until the latter half of the 1500s that potatoes traveled to Europe (Potato, 2021). They became important to Ireland by the end of the 1600s and to Eastern Europe, western England and China by the 1800s (Potato, 2021 & Qu & Xie, 2008). The tuber originates from the Andes region in what is now Peru and Bolivia. It was cultivated in large amounts by the Incas in the 3rd century CE (Potato, 2021). Although, the potato we know today is not entirely the same. The Andean population grew distinctive varieties at different altitudes in terraced mountains, producing around five thousand assortments of potatoes. Today, the different potatoes in grocery stores are from the few that reached Europe by the return of some Spaniards (Mann, 2011). Contributing to a monocultural world where European crops reign supreme. 

Unlike maize, potatoes cannot be grown everywhere, but where it did the plant became very important. Potatoes are inherently more resilient than other plants because of the fact that they grow underground, protected by the elements (Mann, 2011). They are so nutrient rich that humans can survive solely on potatoes and milk (Nunn & Qian, 2010). The introduction of potatoes to Europe effectively doubled the food supply, provoking a population increase (Nunn & Qian, 2010 & Mann, 2011). Nunn & Qian (2010) point to this rise as an aid in the progress of European imperialism. Ireland had such a dependence on the plant that when the crop failed from 1845 to 1849 due to disease, the population of the country dropped by 1.8 million because of starvation and emigration (Mokyr, 2021). 

Less groundbreaking but equally important foods from the Americas to Afro-Eurasia are cassava, sweet potatoes, capsicum peppers, tomatoes, cacao, and vanilla (Nunn & Qian, 2010). Cassava, also known as manioc and yuca, is foundational in many Sub-Saharan African countries (Spencer & Ezedinma, 2017 & Hendrix, 2018). Sweet potatoes, like their cousin the potato, are flood resistant and led to more food security in China (Hendrix, 2018). Capsicum peppers, the common ancestor of chili peppers like cayenne peppers, jalapeño pepper, and bell peppers, became especially important to South and Southeast Asia. Tomatoes became important to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, especially Greece and Libya (Nunn & Qian, 2010). 

The Columbian Exchange was not limited to the movement of food, but it was a very large portion of what occurred. Without it, the world as we know it would not be the same. And yet, Columbus thought he was changing the world. In a way he did, but it was the Indigenous peoples in the Americas and their ingenuity who actually transformed the world and the lives of millions. 

Katie Lloyd is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in History with a Latin American concentration, minoring in Museum Studies, and pursuing a Certificate of Latin American Studies. She was born and raised in Arlington, Virginia and has been learning Spanish since kindergarten. Katie has previously been an Undergraduate Intern in the Language Department of Brashear High School and Visitor Services Volunteer at various Historic Alexandria Museums. She is primarily interested in Latin American history, indigenous history, politics, and the arts. She plans to pursue a Master of Arts in History or Education. 


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