Home page of Nature TransformedGetting Back to YouEmail us your Comments and QuestionsKey Word Search

NHC Home TeacherServe Nature Transformed Native Americans Essay:Page OnePage TwoPage Three

The Columbian Exchange: Plants, Animals, and Disease between the Old and New Worlds
Alfred W. Crosby, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin
©National Humanities Center
Guiding Student Discussion
Scholars Debate
Links to Online Resources
Illustration Credits
Works Cited

(part 2 of 3)

  Giesslev, 1804, Library of Congress, plants cultivated by Native Americans
Giesslev, 1804
Library of Congress
Plants cultivated by Native Americans and introduced to Europe after 1492

image enlargement

The contrast between the two sets of organisms, Old World and New World, those closely associated with humanity—crop plants, domesticated animals, germs, and weeds—was very sharp. The difference between the two lists of crops was, with the possible exception of cotton, absolute. (I am omitting dozens of not quite so important crops in these lists.)

Pineapple New World crops
maize (corn)
white potatoes
sweet potatoes
squash (incl. pumpkin)
  Old World crops
"Ananas cosmosus"
[pineapple], in Oviedo, La historia general de las Indias, 1535

Library of Congress
  "Lactuca capitata. Cabbage Lettuce," in Gerard, The herball, 1633


The difference between the two lists of domesticated animals is even more amazing. They differ not only in content but in length.

[llama], in Topsell, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes and Serpents and Insects, 1658

New World

guinea pigs
fowl (a few species)
  Old World

barnyard fowl
Horse, in Ruini, Dell'anotomia et dell'infirmità del cavallo, 1598

Library of Congress

de Bry, "The Towne Secota,"
in Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590

Library of Congress
Corn, pumpkins, tobacco,
and sunflowers

grown by Algonquian Indians near the 1585 English colony on Roanoke Island
The achievements of Amerindian farmers were as impressive as those of Old World farmers, especially if you take into account the fact that the Amerindians' lands were smaller in area and they had fewer species of plants to work with than the Old World farmers, but the achievements of Amerindian livestockmen were clearly inferior to their Old World opposite numbers. Perhaps the Americas simply had fewer species of large mammals that could be tamed. There were, for instance, no wild horses or cattle in the Americas to tame. What about North American buffalo? They resisted and still resist domestication. The Amerindians did domesticate the llama, the humpless camel of the Andes, but it cannot carry more than about two hundred pounds at most, cannot be ridden, and is anything but an amiable beast of burden.

. . . an epidemic broke out, a sickness of pustules. It began in Tepeilhuitl. Large bumps spread on people; some were entirely covered. . . .[The victims] could no longer walk about, but lay in their dwellings and sleeping places, . . . And when they made a motion, they called out loudly. The pustules that covered people caused great desolation; very many people died of them, and many just starved to death; starvation reigned, and no one took care of others any longer.

Excerpt and illustration from Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, c. 1575-1580; ed., tr., James Lockhart, We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest Mexico (Univ. of California Press, 1993)

More astonishing than the difference between the length of the lists of Old World's and New World's domesticated animals is the difference between the lengths of the lists of infectious diseases native to the two. The New World had only a few, possibly because humans had been present there and had lived in dense populations, cities, for a short time compared to the Old. Possibly of greater importance is the relative lack of domesticated herd animals in America, one of our richest sources of disease micro-organisms. (For instance, we share influenza with pigs and other barnyard animals).

There were infections in the New World before 1492 that were not present in the Old (Chargas' disease, for instance). There were those it shared with the Old World, certainly one or more of the treponematoses (a category including syphilis) and possibly tuberculosis; but the list is short, very short. When we list the infections brought to the New World from the Old, however, we find most of humanity's worst afflictions, among them smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, measles, cholera, typhoid, and bubonic plague.

Page OnePage TwoPage Three

"Native Americans and the Land" Essays
Pleistocene Die-Off | The Columbian Exchange | Indian Removal | Buffalo Tales
Essay-Related Links

Native Americans and the Land
The Use of the LandWilderness and American Identity
Home page of Nature TransformedGetting Back to YouEmail us your Comments and QuestionsKey Word Search

TeacherServe Home Page
National Humanities Center
7 Alexander Drive, P.O. Box 12256
Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27709
Phone: (919) 549-0661   Fax: (919) 990-8535
Revised: December 2001
Main essay page for Native Americans and the Land Main essay page for The Use of the Land Main essay page for Wilderness and the American Identity