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Pangea was a supercontinent that existed during the Mesozoic and Paleozoic eras. It began to break apart, into two separate continents, about 175 million years ago. This large-scale global change would forever change the biology and geography of the world. The splitting of Pangea would also go on to become the reasoning behind many global phenomena. Millions and millions of years ago when the continental drift split Pangea, the future of human societies was forever changed. This massive drift played a large role in splitting the Old World and the New World. North and South America were split from Eurasia and Africa, with the Atlantic ocean now between the two land masses. This large-scale separation caused for two different types of societies to develop, in separate parts of the world. Although this may seem like no big deal, it was much more than just two different societies, the different land masses developed in different ways, therefore they had different biological resources that were available for the people to utilize.
In 1492 the Columbian exchange in a way “re-established” connection between the two worlds. It was the transfer of people, commodities, and diseases across the Atlantic Ocean. Some would consider it the single most important event in the modern history of the world. It allowed the Europeans to enter the global trading system, which had previously been dominated by China with their silks, and India with their spices. This gave many European countries significant wealth, and the ability to become a dominant trading system. Although the Columbian Exchange had a lot of benefits, it also caused a lot of deaths alongside those positives. Millions of people died during this era. It is estimated that ninety percent of the first Americans died, and on some Caribbean Islands the Native American population died out completely. It was one of the largest exchanges of commodities, people, and diseases across the Atlantic Ocean. The Columbian Exchange largely affected practically every society on earth in a very profound way by transferring devastating diseases, as well as circulating a wide variety of new crops and livestock.
During the Columbian exchange there were many diseases that crossed from, and traveled in-between, the Old World to the New World. The Native American people of the New World were greatly affected by these diseases because first of all, they were not immune to them and second, they did not know what they were until it was too late. Native American populations depleted so much, very rapidly. Some historians are estimated that around twenty-five to fifty percent of the Native American tribes’ population were unfortunately lost to disease. Some of the diseases that were carried between the two different societies were Smallpox, Mumps, Measles, Polio, Hepatitis, Influenza, Syphilis, and Encephalitis. Smallpox, Mumps, Measles and Influenza were all brought from the Old World to the New World. This means that they wiped out mostly Native Americans due to their weak immune systems, and the fact that they had no idea what these diseases were. Medicine wasn’t advanced, so there just weren’t very many cures for the Native Americans. Smallpox was a disease that mostly affected children, and it wiped out Native Americans very rapidly. Mumps affects the salivary and parotid glands, and it is very painful for whoever contracted the disease. Measles was a disease that had no treatment. People who contracted it experienced flu like symptoms. Influenza, which is also known as the flu, affects the nose, throat, and lungs.
Although the group of people that suffered the most with this “exchange of diseases” were the Native Americans, the Europeans also contracted some diseases from the New World. Polio, Hepatitis, Encephalitis, and Syphilis were all spread from the New World to the Old World. Polio was present in Europe during the pre-Columbian times, but after the exchange “began,” Polio slowly became a larger and larger issue for the Europeans. Hepatitis affects the liver and can be caused by prescribed medicines or improper drug usage. Native Americans had never been exposed to this disease before. Encephalitis is a bacterial disease that is a result of an immune system issue. It can cause hallucinations, but only some cases were deadly. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that was transmitted by mainly European sailors. Some of the European sailors would come in and rape Native American women. This practice also led to a new race in the Americas.
Along with diseases, the Columbian Exchange also fostered the transferring of large amounts of crops. This exchange of goods affected both the Old World and the New World. Before this large-scale transfer of goods occurred, Old World crops such as wheat, barley, rice and turnips were unheard of in the New World. The Native Americans had no idea what they were, or what to do with them. Some crops that had never traveled West across the Atlantic Ocean before were maize, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and manioc. Although many crops went to England, they also went to other countries. For example, maize was brought from the Americas to China, and the white potatoes were brought to Ireland. After potatoes were introduced to Ireland, they became a staple crop for that area of land. When the Europeans settled on the East coast of the United States they brought and began the cultivation of wheat and apples. This transfer of goods was vital to the development of the New World because it allowed for new and different economies to develop. These new economies flourished after the Europeans introduced these commodities.
While all of the commodities in the Colombian Exchange were important, some people would consider sugar to be one of the most vital commodities in the colonial era. To put it into perspective, sugar had the same economic importance in the colonial era as oil has today. Many different countries fought to control the production of sugar in the Americas. Sugar was first brought to Hispaniola by Columbus in 1493, where it thrived. Sugarcane growth excelled in tropical areas, so it was mostly grown in the Caribbean islands. Although sugar production really boosted the colonial economies, it also fostered the need for slave labor.
The Atlantic slave trade began during the colonial era, due to the need for hardworking, “durable” people to work on sugar plantations. Because sugar was such a desired commodity, the demand for it grew immensely. The Europeans began to kidnap and transfer Africans to the Americas. Africans were tied to each other, traded, branded, and treated as property. Many of the kidnapped people died along the middle passage, which was the journey that the now slaves took across the Atlantic ocean. The ships went from West Africa to the West Indies. The Africans were beneficial as slaves because they were immune to most diseases, and they were used to hard labor. When they went to the Americas, European settlers began to develop plantations, which are large estates, to grow sugarcane. At first the plantation owners had used Native Americans as their slave labor, but they died too fast for the Europeans to consider them useful. A Spanish priest named Bartolome de Las Casas suggested replacing the Native Americans with Africans, and the Portuguese took that idea and ran with it. By the mid-1500s the Portuguese and Spanish were transporting thousands and thousands of people to the Americas and Caribbean.
Another very important crop for the Europeans was tobacco. Tobacco was a cash crop for the Europeans, which means it was grown for sale instead of personal consumption. Unlike some crops that were discussed before, the Europeans did not bring tobacco over. Before the Europeans came to the Americas the Native Americans had been using and growing tobacco for medical and ritual purposes. They believed that tobacco enhanced wisdom and improved concentration. Before 1492 the Europeans had no idea that tobacco existed, so it had a negative stigma at first. Early Spanish explorers utilized the Native Americans tobacco use as a reason to consider them savages and think of themselves as higher peoples. Although there was a negative connotation with it at first, over time Europeans became accustomed to tobacco use and claimed it had medical properties, just like the Native Americans thought it did. Tobacco became the first true global commodity. Many countries including Europe, France, Spain and Portugal all grew it, so they could participate in the world market. Alongside tobacco, the Native Americans introduced the Europeans to chocolate.
Alongside diseases and crops, the Columbian exchange also fostered the transfer of many animals across the Atlantic Ocean, including horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and many more. Before the Europeans brought new animals to the Natives, they had only domesticated several animals including llamas, alpacas, dogs, turkeys and guinea pigs. Christopher Columbus brought pigs, cows, chickens, and horses to the Caribbean Islands. Native Americans used livestock for transportation, hauling, hides, tallow and meat.
The practice of hunting and gathering was transformed into a highly mobile practice because of these animals. The larger animals that the Europeans brought greatly changed the nature of work in the Americas. They allowed for the animals to do the work, rather than the Native Americans. When the Native Americans could use oxen to plow, it made things like cultivation and transportation easier and more efficient. Another animal that made a large difference in the Native American society was the pig. They completely remade the food supply. Pigs were so prevalent in native American and colonial societies because they can breed quickly and easily, and they do not have a specific diet. The large amounts of land for grazing and agriculture allowed for the livestock to prosper in the Americas.
Another animal that greatly affected the Native American’s lives was the horse. They helped to kickstart Westward migration and make it easier. Horses also became an important component of religious ceremonies. Some Native Americans would dance with the horses and imitate them. The Oglala Dakota tribe began a “horse medicine cult” would use horses to cure sickness and predict the outcome of events. Horse medicine men and women soon became the most respected individuals in most of the Native American tribes.
The Europeans also aided the Native Americans by bringing new technologies. They brought over guns and knives to trade with the Native Americans. This greatly benefitted the Natives as they hunted for their food. It also helped to make everyday tasks simpler and easier.
One of the largest exchanges of commodities, people, and diseases across the Atlantic Ocean is called the Columbian Exchange. It largely affected practically every society on earth by transferring devastating diseases, as well as circulating a wide variety of new crops and livestock. Many people would even consider the Colombian Exchange as the most important event in the world’s modern history. The Columbian exchange brought new technologies, livestock, plants, and diseases. It fostered global development and allowed economies to rapidly grow. Most historians would agree that the final result of the Columbian Exchange is our current global society today. Our modern world is a place of cultural tensions and biological threats, even though globalization is continually bringing our world closer. Although there were only a few notable parts of the Columbian exchange mentioned in this essay, including the transfer of people, crops, disease, and livestock, the massive effects it brought onto the world are too numerous to quantify.
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