Columbian Exchange: An Era of Mutual Discovery and Transformation

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The Columbian exchange may have been the driving force behind the creation of new worlds for all. Parallel civilizations, each largely unaware of the other, came into contact in 1492, and the process and consequences of this convergence were—and are—mind-boggling in their complexity. Indeed, the Columbian exchange changed everything. How?

A native American woman standing with horses around her.
What so many people take to be the quintessence of Indianness—the equestrian cultures of the plains—is, in fact, a product of the Columbian exchange. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

We can define the Columbian exchange as the transference of plants, animals, and diseases between the Americas and Eurasia and Africa after Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas in 1492.

The Europeans brought everything from grains to vegetables, fruit trees, and even grass. And, on their part, the Indigenous peoples introduced non-Natives to maize or corn, potatoes, manioc or cassava, peanuts, tomatoes, cocoa, squash and pumpkins, pineapples, papaya, and avocados.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Columbian Exchange: The Exchange of Animals

But, let’s turn our focus to the second component of the Columbian exchange. As early as 1493, the Europeans brought with them a host of animals that the Indigenous people had never seen before—donkeys, goats, sheep, chickens, pigs, and cattle.

Perhaps, the most startling would have been horses, which dwarfed any animal that Native peoples had domesticated at the time of contact. What so many people take to be the quintessence of Indianness—the equestrian cultures of the plains—is, in fact, a product of the Columbian exchange.

Similarly, take the Diné or Navajo people in the Southwest. “For Navajos,” writes Diné scholar Jennifer Nez Denetdale, “livestock became so thoroughly integrated into their lives that sheep meant literally and figuratively ‘life.’”

However, the introduction of sheep and cattle, both as grazers and as excreters, had a huge impact on native flora and contributed to ecological changes across the continent.

Learn more about the cultures that existed prior to the Spanish Invasion.

Columbian Exchange and the Beaver Trade

The North American beaver proved transformative. Europe’s own beaver species were physically smaller and the population was badly depleted during the early years of colonization. Beaver pelts were highly sought after because of their warmth, texture, and durability.

The beaver pelts sourced from the colder climes of North America were all the more desirable for their size and thickness. North American beavers thus became integral to trade and the emerging colonial projects of England and France.

Columbian Exchange: Europeans Bring Diseases

Yet, the transformative impact of plants and animals paled in comparison to that of the Columbian exchange’s third major component: diseases. Before 1492, there were almost no infectious diseases in the Americas that weren’t also found in Eurasia and Africa.

However, non-Indigenous traders, fishers, explorers, conquistadors and their armies, missionaries, and settlers brought with them smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, measles, cholera, typhus, bubonic plague, whooping cough, and other sicknesses.

Through the Columbian exchange, Europeans unleashed diseases that had never been seen before, and to which Native peoples had no immunity. The consequences were devastating.

Columbian Exchange: The Devastating Effects of Diseases

A 16th-century Aztec drawing of smallpox victims.
Smallpox, once introduced to the mainland in 1519, spread through central Mexico with devastating consequences. (Image: Oxford University Press/Public domain)

Consider, as one example, the conquest of the Mexica, the Mesoamerican people commonly but inaccurately referred to as the Aztecs. Smallpox, once introduced to the mainland in 1519—possibly by an African slave near the present-day city of Veracruz—spread through central Mexico with devastating consequences.

Scholars estimate that the population of central Mexico might have been as high as 25.2 million at the time of the invasion. By the early 17th century, it was perhaps 7,30,000. This was a demographic collapse of epic proportions.

Diseases Affect Indigenous Peoples

The French established the cities of Montreal and Quebec on the ruins of Hochelaga and Stadacona, respectively. Both of these villages were surrounded by vast fields of corn and heavily populated by St. Lawrence Iroquoians when they came into contact with French explorers between 1535 and 1536. But when French colonists returned 70 years later, they were deserted.

In present-day Vermont, European diseases similarly laid waste to the western Abenaki living in the valleys of the Green Mountains long before the arrival of English settlers.

Indeed, all through the mid-16th and early 17th centuries, epidemics raced through Indian villages along the St. Lawrence River Valley and into New England. Mortality rates, which varied, often exceeded 75 percent.

And this was only the beginning. Outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, measles, and other diseases repeatedly crashed through Indigenous communities all along the Eastern seaboard and through the Southeast.

Columbian Exchange: Diseases Propel Diaspora

A Catawba (American Indian) family in South Carolina.
Native people like the Lumbee, Catawba, Choctaw, and Seminole reconstituted their communities. (Image: The Columbia Photography Studio/Public domain)

And yet, bodies weren’t only destroyed by the introduction of diseases; they were also set in motion.

In the Native South, for instance, some coastal and piedmont communities, including people who spoke languages from three different language families—Siouan, Iroquoian, and Algonquian—dispersed into the interior and reconstituted themselves as new people.

As Native people like the Lumbee, Catawba, Choctaw, and Seminole reconstituted their communities, becoming nations of nations, Europeans filled power vacuums created by disease. But the newcomers did more   than that. They often looked at the devastation wrought by disease as confirmation of their right to the land—as affirmation of God’s hand at work in fulfilling their providential mission.

Learn more about Christopher Columbus’s encounter with the Americas.

Columbian Exchange and Slavery

Virtually all of the early Europeans explorers wrote of taking Indigenous people, willingly or unwillingly, back to Europe as objects of curiosity; or, from Native vantage points, as captives, slaves, or sometimes as emissaries. Many succumbed to disease before their return—others didn’t.

Slavery represents another way in which bodies were part of the Columbian exchange. The introduction of cotton and sugar to North America carried devastating consequences for Indigenous people and Africans, many of whom were taken into bondage and forced to cultivate these crops.

The presence of European slavers, demographic collapse, competition over trade, and increased warfare also intensified and redefined preexisting Indigenous practices of captive-taking and slavery, as well.

And to further complicate our understanding of the Columbian exchange’s transformative consequences, we might consider, too, the genetic exchange born of sexual relationships between Natives and newcomers.

Columbian Exchange: An Exchange of Ideas and Objects

The Columbian exchange also triggered the transference of beliefs, political ideals, technologies, and everyday material things, from glass beads and mirrors to copper, pots, knives, awls, and guns.

We might also contemplate an exchange of ideas about the nature of the land and its resources, what gives the land value and how people should relate to it. Now that’s an exchange of ideas that’s far from over.

We would do well to keep in mind that much of what we imagine as new might have been thought of as next by Indigenous contemporaries. After all, Native communities were already practiced in the arts of dealing with people unlike themselves, the exchange of material and nonmaterial things across vast trade networks, and the making of innovations to their ways of life.

Common Questions about the Columbian Exchange and Its Effects

Q: What was exchanged in the Columbian exchange?

In the Columbian exchange, there was a transference of plants, animals, and diseases between the Americas and Eurasia and Africa.

Q: Which animals were brought from Europe to America in the Columbian exchange?

During the Columbian exchange, the Europeans brought with them a host of animals to America which included horses, donkeys, goats, sheep, chickens, pigs, and cattle.

Q: What infectious diseases spread in Americas due to the Columbian exchange?

In the Columbian exchange, diseases like smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, measles, cholera, typhus, bubonic plague and whooping cough were brought to the Americas.

Keep Reading
Columbian Exchange and the Ideas of the New World
Trade, Discovery, and the ‘New World’ of 1492
The Great Spanish Conquistadors