Columbian Exchange

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COLUMBIAN EXCHANGE. The title of this article refers to the interchange of plants and food products that took place between America and Europe after Columbus's voyages to the New World. Although the exchange was carried out in both directions, the article places greater emphasis upon the transfer of American plants and food products to Europe than in the other direction. European products that brought about significant changes in New World diets include wheat; meat and meat products such as milk, cheese and eggs; sugar; citrus fruits; onions; garlic; and certain spices such as parsley, coriander, oregano, cinnamon, and cloves.

Among the products that arrived in Europe after the discovery of the Americas were many plants native to the New World and unknown to Europeans. Some plants were transported intentionally, perhaps by a returning Spaniard who had become accustomed to the exotic flavors of America; others traveled uninvited, hidden in the nooks and crannies of ships or mixed with the ballast that Spanish ships carried on their return trips to the Old World.

Over the years, the seeds and plants were scattered throughout the nearby hills of the Mediterranean Basin by the wind, water currents, or birds, or by humans themselves. Now, over 500 years after their introduction to the area, they form such an integral part of the landscape that this would be unrecognizable for any Roman citizens who came in search of their ancient environment.

New World Plants in the Old World

American plants were not well received when they arrived in Europe. Some were the object of suspicion because of their similarity to a group of hallucinogenic plants already known and used by Europeans. Others had to undergo a genetic transformation before they could produce in the new climate and latitudes. American plants eventually became incorporated into the Mediterranean diet and now serve to identify it as readily as wheat, olives, and wine, traditional food plants of the area.

Spain became the route of dispersion for the new plants in Europe, since most of them initially arrived in the port of Seville. They extended along two distinct routes: one group was diffused toward the north of the continent, while others were found to adapt and prosper better in the south. The southern group first arrived in Italy, which should not be surprising since Spain controlled parts of Italy during the sixteenth century, and this facilitated the introduction of American plants to the area. The well-established trade routes set up by the Aragonese long before the sixteenth century were important factors in the dispersion of American products. The mild climate and loose soil that predominate in the Mediterranean helped make the area a favorable ecological niche for the adaptation and development of the new plants.

Maize and beans, subsistence crops throughout much of the Americas, prospered well in the Mediterranean Basin. Tomatoes and chili peppers adapted easily to the new atmosphere. Other crops that had little trouble in establishing themselves were several varieties of squash, sweet potatoes, the nopal, or prickly pear cactus, and the agave, or century plant. The potato, a plant that generated important changes in European social life, adapted better in the cold climates and high altitudes of Northern Europe, because of a greater similarity to their original habitat in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia and Peru.

Some of the plants rejected upon their arrival in Europe were the tomato, potato, and chili pepper. All are members of the Solanaceae plant family and had to confront the famous "curse of the nightshades" before being accepted in European diets. Europeans were already familiar with some poisonous members of this group of plants such as mandrake, henbane, and belladonna, hallucinogenic plants used by witches and sorcerers of the time. They recognized these three plants as members of the same plant family by their leaves and flowers and were suspicious of them. In addition to being hallucinogenic and poisonous, the plants were believed to cause leprosy and syphilis. Soon they acquired fame as aphrodisiacs, although it is doubtful that this contributed to their rejection.

It was in the Mediterranean area where New World plants had their earliest acceptance. The Mediterranean Sea served as a background for the struggle between the Ottoman Turks and the Spanish Hapsburgs in the sixteenth century. These two empires played a dominant role in the region and were probably the most important distributors of American plants in Mediterranean countries.

The role played by the Turks is evident in the nomenclature of American plants in the sixteenth century. Maize appeared in European herbals with the name of Turkish grain, blé de Turquie, or turkisher korn. The chili pepper was called Turkish red pepper and squash was known as Turkish cucumber; even the American turkey received its well-known name in English at this time, when it was called the turkie-bird.

A Historical Comparison of Plant Introductions

The arrival of American plants in the Mediterranean during the sixteenth century can be compared to a similar occurrence during Roman times. During the first years of the Empire, Romans followed a fairly simple diet. Their meals consisted mainly of boiled grains such as millet, rye, and wheat, and of vegetables grown in the area. With the expansion of the Empire, trade and commerce began to flourish, and some Roman merchants began to introduce new food products from far-reaching corners of the Roman Empire. The best of the ancient world arrived at the tables of upper-class Romans. The variety of available food products increased considerably, and the new foods soon became a necessity in the Roman diet, giving rise to an elaborate and sophisticated cuisine.

It was not until the sixteenth century and the arrival of New World plants that this phenomenon was repeated in history. Plant specialists calculate that seventy-eight new plants, including fruit trees, vegetables, and spices, arrived in Italy during the centuries of the Roman Empire, while 127 arrived from America during just the first century following the discovery of the New World.

Factors Determining the Acceptance of Plants

Some plants were easily accepted in the Mediterranean diet due to their similarity to other plants already known in the area. This was the case for the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris ) that showed a similarity with the fava bean (Vicia faba ), known since Roman times and diffused throughout the area by Romans during their conquests.

The maize plant does not resemble other grains, although its preparation in the form of ground flour in breads and gruels gave it a certain similarity to them. Maize flour was combined with other ground cereals and used in the preparation of rustic breads, favored by the poor. It also came to substitute for millet in the preparation of Italian polenta, an ancient Roman dish that had been a mainstay of the poor for centuries.

The squash bore a resemblance to other cucurbits known to the Romans, although they belonged to other plant species. It received the name of calabash and a false identity as zucco from Syria. From this comes its present-day name, zucchini.

The chili pepper and the tomato arrived as new and strange plants, and people were suspicious of them. The fact that Europeans did not know how to prepare them and that they bore no resemblance to foods already in their diets made their acceptance more difficult. Chili peppers were too hot for the European palate, and they found the tomato difficult to prepare. It was too acrid to eat in its green stage, but when it ripened, it appeared to be spoiled, and when cooked, it disintegrated. Finally, they adopted the Aztec technique of grinding it into a purée. The tomato that arrived in the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century was not the bright red, smooth, juicy fruit we know today, but rather a pale fruit with an acid flavor and unpleasant smell. The first illustrations in herbals show a small, ridged, hard fruit that does not look very appetizing. It was the caring hands of Italian gardeners that improved the American tomato and turned it into the vivid, plump, thin-skinned fruit we appreciate today. They also modified the chili pepper, turning it into a large fruit without the characteristic heat of the Mexican pepper. When transformed into a green pepper, it could be eaten as a vegetable, stuffed with meat or cheese, and it has found an important place in Mediterranean salads. Sweet potatoes and the prickly pear cactus adapted and grew wherever the climate and soil permitted them.

The Turks introduced American plants into the Balkans during their sixteenth century invasions of the region. Today the Hungarian chili pepper, called paprika, is one of the predominant flavors in Balkan cooking. Maize, squash, and tomatoes also play an important role in the cuisine.

American Plants Incorporated into the European Diet

American plants arrived in Europe during the sixteenth century, but did not play a significant role in the European diet for two-hundred years. They became incorporated into the eighteenth-century diet, not as exotic or innovative dishes, but rather as additional ingredients in traditional foods already known and eaten by the masses. Cooks began adding maize and potatoes to popular soups and stews. American beans became a substitute for Roman fava beans in Spanish fabada (a bean stew from Asturias); white beans came to be used in cassoulet (a dish of southern France, made with beans and pork), as well as in Tuscan bean dishes. Sicilians discovered that tomato sauces were a good complement to pasta and pizzas and provided more color and flavor than the traditional butter or olive oil dressings. Peperonata, made with sautéed red and green peppers, occupies a place in all Mediterranean cuisines. The tomato and the chili pepper became a common ingredient in Greek dishes such as moussaka, made with lamb and eggplant, and in Hungarian dishes like chicken paprika or goulash.

Andalusian gazpacho, an ancient bread soup, possibly of Roman origin, suddenly took on a new presentation with tomatoes and green peppers. Valencian paella (a dish of rice, chicken, and seafood) and bacalao (a codfish casserole) soon included foods from America in their preparation. Innovative cooks created new dishes such as the tortilla española, a Spanish omelet cooked with potatoes, and "pa amb tomàquet, " thick Catalan bread slices smeared with tomatoes and olive oil. The Muslim tradition of filling vegetables with meat and sauce soon found new receptacles in American vegetables such as green peppers, tomatoes, and squash. Over the years, they learned to make Moroccan couscous with tomatoes, served with harissa sauce, made with mashed chili peppers, salt, and garlic.


After an uncertain beginning upon their arrival in Europe, American plants revolutionized European diets as they slowly began replacing traditional ingredients and became staples in the basic diets of the area. They provided a more nutritional diet and helped put an end to the chronic famines that had affected Europe since the Middle Ages. Two New World plants, maize and potatoes, are considered among the four most important subsistence plants of the world and are believed to have played a role in the population explosion that began in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Maize quickly became a mainstay in the Venetian and Roman diets. It was easy to grow and so productive that many country people began living on a diet made up almost exclusively of maize products. Maize contains an incomplete protein and lacks trytophan, a precursor of niacin, which helps the body synthesize vitamins. Without this amino acid, the body cannot absorb vitamins and thus produces a nutritional deficiency called pellagra, which affects the digestive and nervous systems as well as the skin. In extreme cases, it can be fatal. No Mediterranean country was saved from this terrible disease. It was not abolished completely in Italy until after the Second World War, when the diet and living conditions improved in that country. Potatoes were accepted in the diet in places like seventeenth-century Ireland, where the people were undergoing a severe food crisis; two centuries later, they were the cause of Ireland's "great hunger" of the nineteenth century when the loss of the potato crop in consecutive years left people with nothing to eat.

See also Caribbean; Central America; Diaspora; Iberian Peninsula; Inca Empire; Maize; Mexico and Central America, Pre-Columbian; South America .


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Fernández Pérez, Joaquin, and Ignacio González Tascón, eds. La agricultura viajera. Barcelona, Spain: Lunwerg Editores, S. A., 1991.

Hobhouse, Henry. Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Transformed Mankind. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Viola, Herman J., and Carolyn Margolis, eds. Seeds of Change: A Quincentennial Commemoration. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Janet Long-Solís

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Columbian Exchange refers to the great changes that were initiated by Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus (14511506) as he and other Europeans voyaged from Europe to the New World and back during the late 1400s and in the 1500s. When Columbus landed at Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic) in 1492, he brought with him horses and cattle. These were the first animals of their kind seen in the Western Hemisphere; the American Indians had no beasts of burden prior to the arrival of the Europeans. In subsequent trips Columbus and other explorers would introduce horses and livestock (including cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and chickens) throughout South and North America. Diseases were another earlyalbeit accidentaltransport from Europe to the New World. Native inhabitants had no immunities to the foreign illnesses and, once exposed, died in numbers.

While Europe carried its seeds of change to the Western Hemisphere, the new lands yielded many plants unknown in Europe. On Columbus's 1492 voyage he became the first European to discover maize (corn), sweet potatoes, capsicums (peppers), plantains, pineapples, and turtle meat. Subsequent expeditions found potatoes, wild rice, squash, tomatoes, cacao (chocolate beans), peanuts, cashews, and tobacco. These plants, many of which had been developed and cultivated by the American Indians, were carried back to Europe and their cultivation spread to suitable climates throughout the world. Europeans later carried plants from the east back to the Americas where they took hold. These included rice, sugar, indigo, wheat, and citrus fruits.

The discovery of new lands in the west set off waves of migration which have ebbed and flowed ever since. But the discovery also resulted in exchanges of plants, animals, diseases, and even knowledge that brought dramatic changes to the world: it transformed the way people dressed, ate, traveled, and provided for themselves and their families.

See also: Corn, Horses, Potatoes, Rice, Sugar, Tobacco

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