200 million years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, the seven continents were united into a single massive supercontinent known as Pangea. After they slowly separated and settled in the positions we know today, each continent has developed independently of the others over the millennia, including the evolution of different species of plants, animals and bacteria.
In 1492, the year that Christopher Columbus first made landfall on a Caribbean island, the Americas had been almost completely isolated from the Old World (including Europe, Asia and Africa) for some 12,000 years since the melting sea ice in the Bering Strait has obliterated the overland route between Asia and the west coast of North America. But with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the waves of European exploration, conquest and colonization that followed, the process of global separation would be firmly reversed, with consequences that still reverberate today.
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What was the Colombian exchange?
Historian Alfred Crosby first used the term “Colombian exchange” in the 1970s to describe the massive exchange of people, animals, plants, and disease that took place between the eastern and western hemispheres after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas.
On Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493, he brought 17 ships and over 1,000 men to further explore and expand a former settlement on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). In the holds of their ships were hundreds of domestic animals, including sheep, cows, goats, horses and pigs, none of which could be found in the Americas. (The horses were actually native to the Americas and spread to the Old World, but disappeared from their original homeland at some point after the land bridge disappeared, possibly due to illness or l arrival of human populations.)
Europeans also brought seeds and plant cuttings to grow Old World crops such as wheat, barley, grapes, and coffee in the fertile soil they found in the Americas. The staple foods consumed by Indians in America, such as corn (corn), potatoes, and beans, as well as flavorful additions like tomatoes, cocoa, chili peppers, peanuts, vanilla, and pineapples, would soon flourish in Europe and spread throughout the Old World, revolutionizing traditional diets in many countries.
The disease spreads among indigenous people
Along with the people, plants and animals of the Old World came their diseases. Pigs on board Columbus ships in 1493 immediately spread swine flu, which sickened Columbus and other Europeans and was fatal to the native population of Taino in Hispaniola, who had never been exposed to the virus. In a retrospective account written in 1542, the Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas reported that “there were so many diseases, deaths and misery, that countless fathers, mothers and children died… Multitudes on this Isle [Hispaniola] in 1494, in 1506, it was thought that only a third remained.
Smallpox arrived in Hispaniola in 1519 and quickly spread to mainland Central America and beyond. Along with measles, flu, chicken pox, bubonic plague, typhus, scarlet fever, pneumonia and malaria, smallpox was a disaster for Native Americans, who were not immune to these diseases. While it is impossible to know the exact impact of Old World diseases on the indigenous populations of the Americas, historians have estimated that between 80 and 95 percent of them were decimated during the first 100 to 150. years after 1492.
The impact of the disease on Native Americans, combined with the cultivation of lucrative cash crops such as sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton in the Americas for export, would have another devastating consequence. To meet the demand for labor, European settlers turned to the slave trade, which resulted in the forced migration of some 12.5 million Africans between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Syphilis and the Colombian exchange
When it comes to disease, the exchange was pretty lopsided, but at least one deadly disease appears to have made the journey from the Americas to Europe. The first known epidemic of venereal syphilis occurred in 1495, among troops led by King Charles VIII of France during an invasion of Naples; it soon spread throughout Europe. Syphilis is now treated effectively with penicillin, but by the late 15th and early 16th centuries it was causing symptoms such as genital ulcers, rashes, tumors, severe pain, and dementia, and was often fatal.
According to one theory, the origins of syphilis in Europe can be traced to Columbus and his crew, who allegedly acquired Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that causes syphilis, natives of Hispaniola and brought it back to Europe, where some of them later joined Charles’ army.
A competing theory holds that syphilis existed in the Old World before the end of the 15th century, but was grouped together with leprosy or other diseases with similar symptoms. Because syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease, theories implicating its origins are still controversial, but more recent evidence, including a genetic link found between syphilis and a tropical disease known as yaws, found in a remote area. of Guyana, seem to support the Colombian theory.