What Did Europeans Bring to America?


How Did European Contact Affect North American Environment and Native American Society? 


Impact of three factors:


1) non-human organisms--what Alfred Crosby called "the Columbian exchange"--microbes, plants, animals introduced from Europe (and Africa) to the Western hemisphere


2) trade-- European ways of valuing commodities altered Native American economy and ecology


3) settlement patterns--permanent European settlements in North America reshaped land in accordance with Old World ideals.


The Columbian Exchange


What was the Columbian exchange?


What crossed from Europe?


Columbus unloaded horses, cows, pigs, wheat, barley, sugar cane.  These animals took over local environments in Caribbean; pigs ate iguanas, shellfish, sweet potatoes that they never had seen before and thrived in the wild; cattle took to grasslands more lush than in the old world; horses also underwent massive population explosion in the wild due to abundance of grasslands.  Rats, dogs, and cats also went wild in new environment.   The introduction of these species helped Spanish in later conquests--the horses and meat that Cortez used to conquer Mexico came from Cuba, where they thrived in the wild.


Animals not only ones who liked diet of new world foods; Europeans brought maize and potatoes back from western hemisphere to Europe, where their superior caloric value made them attractive new crops to plant and in places such as Ireland totally transformed local foodways, ecosystems, and social relationships (potatoes traveled to Spain, then through Basque fisherman to Ireland).


The other thing that crossed the ocean blue w/Columbus was disease.   Columbus landed in Hispaniola (island shared by Haiti/Dominican Republic) in 1492; by 1600 all of Natives were wiped out.  When Natives died, Spanish turned to Africans for labor, totally remaking Caribbean population so that islands now virtually all black.  Overall, between 1492-1900 Native Populations declined by 90% while European populations increased 444%.  Why were Native Americans so susceptible to disease?



Why was the exchange of germs between Europe and the Americas so unequal?  Why didn’t American diseases spread back to Europe and wipe out most of the European population rather than the other way around?


The answer, in short, is that Europeans, because they farmed with livestock and lived in concentrated settlements, evolved nastier germs. 


Agriculture supports higher densities of population than hunting/gathering, so farmers tend to live in concentrated settlements where “crowd” diseases thrive.  These are germs that evolved to spread quickly, be acute, leave antibodies, and remain in human populations once they get there.  These type of germs cannot survive in small bands of hunter gathers (they die out before they can spread).   


The same rule about crowd diseases applies to animals—epidemic diseases spread quickly in herd animals, such as cows and pigs.  Once humans domesticated these animals, the diseases quickly jumped to humans.


riderpest (cattle) to measles

tuberculosis (cattle) to humans

cowpox (cattle) to smallpox

influenza (pigs) to humans

pertussis (pigs and dogs) to humans (whooping cough)

malaria (chickens) to humans


So, we can see how these diseases arose in Eurasia and coevolved with rise of dense European populations.   Native peoples in the Americas did not have many domesticated animals and thus germs and antibodies did not coevolve here and they never developed resistance.  Nor did nasty diseases evolve here that Europeans hadn’t been exposed to before.


Humans not native to Americas (our primate ancestors, chimps, gorillas, etc never lived here); they crossed over land bridge from Asia in small groups, and whatever diseases might have been in population died out without enough hosts during artic crossing.   Columbus reintroduced pathogens that had been devastating to humans in the rest of the world--smallpox, measles, whooping cough, bubonic plague, malaria, yellow fever, dysentery.  And Native American populations, unlike those in Europe, did not have enough adults living through these diseases to propagate enough children to survive the disease, grow to adulthood, and continue race.  The Native American death rate from disease (1/3-1/2 population) similar to that of European children (that 's why Europeans had so many children).  These diseases killed millions of Native Americans, terrorized survivors, and paralyzed normal social and political relations.   Note that disease spread along trade routes, ahead of Spanish, French, and English settlement, and contributed to impression that parts of New World were "empty" in 17C.


Trade: Spreading disease was only one way that trade affected Native American society and North American environment.   European contact caused a revaluation of the resources that Native Americans used in their lives.  How?   


Note that Native Americans did trade with one another before European contact (myth of self-sufficient Indian tribes), but their surpluses were circulated as part of ceremonial exchanges, not shipped off to seemly insatiable European market economy.  Beavers, shells (wampum), other goods subtly took on new meanings for Native Americans; once Micmacs began trading with French they could not look at a beaver in the same way.  Changes in Native American perceptions of environment resulted in changes in hunting practices that affected ecosystem long before permanent European settlement.  European trade also meant more warfare among Native Americans in 17C as they competed to trade with French and English (to gain advantage over their traditional enemies).   It also altered gender relations within Native American society.  How?


Settlement: As Cronon demonstrates, permanent European settlements wrought greatest changes on North American environment.  How? 


In New England, land permanently brought under cultivation and intensely worked, rather than seasonal use of lands by Native Americans.  As English population quickly surpassed Native American one, more people trying to get a living out of a smaller geographical area.