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The Columbian Exchange: Plants, Animals, and Disease between the Old and New Worlds
Alfred W. Crosby, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin
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Guiding Student Discussion
Scholars Debate (below)
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(part 3 of 3)

You may find your students more interested in the subject at hand than you expect. They have been run past Columbus a goodly number of times and arrive in your classroom prepared to be bored. The role of plants, animals, and diseases in history will have the advantage of novelty and your students are all, I hope, sufficiently scared by AIDS to consider infectious disease as a subject of possible interest. Unfortunately, most of them will have little acquaintance with how evolution, i.e., biology, works historically.

I recommend starting with food. Ask them what they had for breakfast or lunch and have them speculate about the geographical origins of their foods. Wheaties and Cheerios are Old World, wheat and oats having originated in southwest Asia. Corn flakes are New World, Mesoamerican to be precise. Milk is from cows, which are Eurasian. Sugar is southeast Asian, probably from New Guinea. Eggs are from chickens, which are . . . and so on. You don't need huge tomes for this kind of research. Any of the standard encyclopedias will have the information you need.

What is the significance of the Columbian Exchange demographically? What is the staple of the Bantu of southern Africa? Maize, an American food. What is the staple of Kansas and Argentina? Wheat, an Old World food. The chief crop of the lower Rio Grande river is rice, from Asia. How many of the six billion of us are dependent for our nourishment on crops and meat animals that didn't cross the great oceans until after 1492?

What were the Amerindian societies like with no beasts of burden (or unimpressive ones), and, therefore, no plows, no wagons, no way to move really heavy objects but by human muscle? Ask your students to imagine all those equestrian statues of Charlemagne, Napoleon, George Washington—without the horse. Ask them to imagine the pony express without the ponies. The Inca had such an express system, without ponies.

Hernando Cortes and the Spanish soldiers confront the Indians
"Hernando Cortés and the Spanish soldiers
confront the Indians," in Durán, La Historia antigua de la Nueva España, 1585

Library of Congress
"What must it have been like to be exposed in a rush to a totally alien people, horses, steel, and new and hideous diseases?"

Next you might recommend empathy to your students. What must it have been like to be exposed in a rush to a totally alien people, horses, steel, and new and hideous diseases? Discuss the contrast between the degrees of success of European imperialism in the Americas and Africa—in the first, triumph and, in many of its regions, replacement of the native with immigrant populations—and in the other, short-lived success (and in only one colony, South Africa, the immigration of large numbers of Europeans who were, even there, unable to exercise control for long). You might suggest that this contrast was the product of the different ecologies of the two. Ask why there was a Nelson Mandela for the indigenes of South Africa, but no equivalent for the Amerindians of the United States.

Dead killer bees, Nevada, 2000
Dead "killer bees"
Nevada, 2000

Steve Marcus / Las Vegas Sun

Zebra mussels attached to a single threehorn wartyback mussel, Illinois River, 1993

Illinois Natural History Survey

How did Cortés conquer the Aztecs and Pizarro the Inca with only a few hundred soldiers? Could it be that they had allies, in the case of Cortés's thousands of Amerindian allies, and that both conquistadors, Cortés and Pizarro, had an ally in smallpox, a European disease to which almost all of the Spaniards were immune because of childhood exposure and the Amerindians were totally susceptible because they had had no previous contact? AIDS, you might mention, is just the latest of Old World diseases to arrive in America.

Mention the spread north from Brazil of the so-called “killer bees"—Africanized honey bees—as a late example of the success of Old World immigrants. Brought from South Africa to Brazil in 1956, the aggressive African bees soon escaped and interbred with the docile European bees (which had themselves been introduced to the New World by European settlers in the 1600s). The resulting hybrid “killer bees” have traveled north at about 200 miles a year (arriving in the U.S. Southwest in 1990), threatening beekeepers’ swarms and attacking livestock, pets, and people. The spread of zebra mussels is another recent example. Having arrived in the Great Lakes in the mid-1980s (probably when a European ship discharged its ballast into Lake St. Clair), they have spread quickly throughout the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basin. They encrust boat hulls, clog water intake pipes, overtake other mussel species, disrupt the food chain—the list goes on as researchers catalogue the damage.

The Spaniards enter Mexico
"The Spaniards enter Mexico," in Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, c. 1575-80

James Lockhart

The original sources of the Columbian and post-Columbian contacts across the great oceans include a good deal on the biology of the collision. Bernal Diáz del Castillo, for example, in Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva Espańa (1632) cites the importance of smallpox and of horses in the conquest of Mexico. After all, one did not have to be a trained biologist to notice epidemics among the Amerindians or their fear of horses, the biggest land animals they had ever seen. But there was little on such phenomena in the secondary sources until after the middle of the twentieth century. The reason is probably that most historians are trained in the liberal arts, not in the sciences, and are inclined to think that we control nature, rather than the opposite: they thought Cortés was successful because he was a very great soldier and not, surely, because he was lucky enough to have received a live case of smallpox.

Since the 1940s there has been a decline in Euroamerican self-esteem and an avalanche of publications on the biology of the Columbian Exchange, starting with the seminal demographic and epidemiological studies of Sherburne F. Cook and Woodrow Borah (see Cook and Borah, The Aboriginal Population of Central Mexico on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest [1963]). The problem of the teacher, who wants to spend a day or a week and not a lifetime on the subject is one of selection. For general orientation and the latest in details, I recommend articles in the massive The Cambridge History of Food, ed. Kenneth F. Kiple (2000), and The Cambridge World History of Human Disease (1993), also edited by Kiple. For a briefer general consideration, I must, blushing with false embarrassment, suggest my own The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972), Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (1986), and also, without the blushes, Otto T. Solbrig, So Shall You Reap: Farming and Crops in Human Affairs (1994) and William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976). Readers especially interested in specific crops and animals should acquaint themselves with at least Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), Redcliffe Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato (1985 edition), and Elinor G. K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (1994).

The Columbian exchange of infections, which is inextricably entwined with demographic history, is a matter of immense controversy. Few doubt that there were pandemics among the Amerindians post-1492, but historians do argue about whether these propelled the native populations over the cliff into declines of ninety to one hundred percent or something far less. Henry F. Dobyns argues for the biggest plunge, David Henige for the least, each in a barrage of publications. For the beginner, I would recommend Russel Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492 (1987); The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, 2nd ed. (1992); Disease and Demography in the Americas, eds. John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker (1992), and Noble David Cook, Born to Die: Disease and New World
The Red Mean
Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, "The Red Mean: Self Portrait," 1992; part of the artist's series "The Quincentenary Non-Celebration"

Bernice Steinbaum Gallery

, 1492-1650 (1998). You might ask your students to read the hundred pages of the latter book or even the first chapter alone in preparation for a discussion on whether the depopulation of the parts of America first contacted by Europeans ranks with the Holocaust of World War II as genocide or not.

As a sidelight, you might want to ask them why they think there was so much debate in 1992 about the Columbian Quincentennial. Before the 1892 celebration, the debate, if you want to consider it as such, was about the degree of European triumph and about which particular set of Europeans had triumphed most. In 1992 there was an argument, ugly at times, which still continues, pivoting on whose version of Amerindian demographic history we accept, and on whether we think acquisition of the smallpox virus was a fair price for the Amerindians to have paid for the acquisition of Christianity and the alphabet.

Links to Online Resources
Illustration Credits
Works Cited

Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., is Professor Emeritus of History, Geography, and American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His publications in environmental and epidemiological history include The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972), Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (1986), and Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History (1994). His most recent work is The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600 (1997).

Address comments or questions to Professor Crosby through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."

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