Sometimes, it’s the things that we take for granted that mislead us the most. That’s certainly the case with the idea that Europe and Africa represent the Old World and the Americas represent the New World. It’s all a myth. The truth is that both of these worlds were of great antiquity, and through contact and events like the Columbian exchange, these old worlds became new to each other.
Old World-New World Contact Before Columbus
Recent research suggests that by the year 1000, the Dorset, an ancient Arctic people, encountered the Norse or Vikings in what is today northwestern Greenland. Archaeologists have found evidence of what could be either direct or indirect trade, such as a Dorset pendant fashioned out of Norse brass. Later, direct encounters dating from the year 1200 and after took place with the Thule, among others, in Greenland, Newfoundland, and Labrador.
And, in the 1480s, Native people in the Northeast encountered Basque mariners who ventured into the area to take advantage of its bountiful supply of cod.
New Order in Europe
The invasions of the Americas, however, were sparked by the emergence of a new order in Europe. That order was founded on some old ideas, such as a crusading spirit that considered conquest over infidels to be part and parcel of glorifying God.
The new elements featured innovations that made transoceanic voyages possible, the evolution of national, geographical and political identities, and the rise of the economic theory of mercantilism, in which governments promoted trade as a means of generating national wealth.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Race to Find New Trade Routes in Europe
Longstanding rivalries among European powers fostered competition over the control of known trade routes and races to discover new ones. These forces at work in Europe inspired the voyage that resulted in the navigational error that brought Columbus’s ships not to India but to the island home of the Taíno in the Caribbean in 1492.
These same impulses put wind in the sails of English ships that the Mi’kmaq and Beothuk witnessed along the coast of present-day Maine and to Nova Scotia five years later.
Indigenous and European Worlds Come Together
Within the next three decades, Waccamaw, Lenape, Wampanoag, and Abenaki people along the coastline from the Carolinas to Newfoundland, and Algonquin and Iroquoian people in the St. Lawrence River Valley, traded and held council with explorers flying the fleur-de-lis.
To the south, the Calusa and other Mississippian chiefdoms encountered Spanish conquistadors during the latter’s entradas or expeditions into the interior of Florida in 1513. Then, colonists entered Pueblo homelands throughout the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico.
Along the Atlantic coast, in present-day North Carolina, a group of English colonists founded a small settlement on Croatan and Secotan land. This ill-fated venture was followed by the founding of permanent colonies within the Powhatan Confederacy at Jamestown, in what is today Virginia, in 1607; and within the Wampanoag Confederacy at Plymouth in 1620, and Massachusetts Bay in 1630.
Meanwhile, French traders, trappers, priests, and colonists established settlements among the Indians of the St. Lawrence River Valley between 1603 and 1615.
Learn more about the cultures that existed prior to the Spanish Invasion.
Columbian Exchange: The Driving Force Behind the Creation of New Worlds
Following scholar Alfred Crosby, we can define the Columbian exchange as the transference of plants, animals, and diseases between the Americas and Eurasia and Africa unleashed by Christopher Columbus’s geographical miscalculation.
Just how much do we 21st-century people take for granted about how completely the Columbian exchange has changed all of our lives? Well, to answer that question, just try to record everything you ate on a given day, and then figure out where it actually came from.
Let’s say, for example, that you woke up one morning, you ate some granola, drank a cup of coffee or two. For lunch, you opted to go light and just had a salad with grilled chicken and a piece of fruit—maybe a pear or a banana. Then, you had a huge beef burrito wrapped up in a thick flour tortilla for dinner. On the side, you went with some whole wheat tortilla chips and queso and you paired it with your favorite beer, a pilsner. Then, you went ahead and you had that slice of peach cobbler topped with homemade whipped cream for dessert.
Now, if you currently live in North or South America, and had the Columbian exchange not happened, you wouldn’t have been able to eat any of this food since none of the plants or animals would have been around. That’s how transformative the Columbian exchange has been.
Learn more about Christopher Columbus’s encounter with the Americas.
Columbian Exchange: What the Europeans Brought
Well, Europeans brought everything from grains, such as rice—white, not wild—wheat, barley, oats, and rye, to vegetables, including turnips, onions, cabbages, and lettuce. They also carried cuttings for fruit trees, including peaches, pears, and every variety of apple, except for crabapples.
The same is for grass as well as weeds.
Columbian Exchange: What the Americas Gave
The transformations that attended the exchange of plants didn’t go only in one direction.
The Indigenous peoples introduced non-Natives to maize or corn, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and manioc or cassava, as well as peanuts, tomatoes, cocoa, squash and pumpkins, pineapples, papaya, and avocados.
Consider, too, the impact of nonfood plants. Tobacco, a crop that would be among the first to make colonization viable and profitable because of its popularity on the other side of the Atlantic, was indigenous to the Americas.
Potato’s Role in History
And, the consequences of potatoes on European history in general and Irish history in particular is of high importance. The potato helped feed the great population growth of Europe through the 18th and 19th centuries. The Irish so depended on potatoes by the mid-19th century that, when blight wiped out their crops, starvation and famine claimed something in the order of one-quarter of the population.
The science writer Charles Mann reports that the potato is the fifth most important crop worldwide, surpassed in harvest volume only by its fellow American corn or maize, sugarcane, wheat, and rice.
Thus, one can say that the Columbian exchange enabled all of these plants to shape history and culture on a global scale.
Common Questions about the New World-Old World Debate and Columbian Exchange
Yes. There was an Old World-New World contact before Columbus. Evidence shows that as early as the year 1000, the Dorset, an ancient Arctic people, encountered the Norse or Vikings in what is today northwestern Greenland.
The Columbian exchange can be defined as the transference of plants, animals, and diseases between the Americas and Eurasia and Africa unleashed by Christopher Columbus’s geographical miscalculation.
During the Columbian exchange, the Indigenous peoples introduced non-Natives to maize or corn, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and manioc or cassava, as well as peanuts, tomatoes, cocoa, squash and pumpkins, pineapples, papaya, and avocados.