Effects of the Age of Exploration
The “New World” and the “Old World” had lived in virtual isolation from one another since the last Ice Age. The
Age of Exploration and Columbus’s discovery would lead to continual contact between the 2 hemispheres for the first
time. The results of these contacts would have a huge impact on human history.
The “Columbian Exchange” is the term used to refer to the fantastic exchange of agriculture, animals, diseases, and
culture between the Old World and the New World. It is named after Columbus, whose discovery of the Americas led
to European settlement of the New World. The way people lived, what they ate, how they died, and even how many
people lived in each region was changed as the animals, plants, and diseases from each hemisphere were transferred
around the world.
The basic diet of the Eastern Hemisphere gained a lot from its interactions with the Americas. What would Italian
cuisine be without lasagna, spaghetti, or ravioli? But none of those dishes would exist without the New World plant
called the tomato. Who likes Godiva chocolate? The Swiss never baked a single piece of chocolate until the cacao
bean (where chocolate comes from) was discovered in South America. Even rich European men had to wait until the
Columbian Exchange to smoke their cigars, because tobacco only grew in the New World. Perhaps even more
importantly, the New World gave the rest of the world the humble potato and corn. Both of these crops yield a high
amount of calories per acre, which basically means you can feed more people with less land with these crops. Crops
such as these allow higher populations. The potato became a basic staple of the diet of Northern Europe. (Ireland
became so dependant on the potato so quickly that by the 1800’s, the loss of the potato crop alone was sufficient to
cause widespread starvation.) Corn (or maize as most of the world calls it) was also a huge success. It’s easy to grow
and can flourish in a variety of environments. It became a staple of diets around the world, including Africa and
Asian. At present, 1/3 of all the crops grown to feed the world’s population are originally from the New World.
The Old World diet was not the only beneficiary of this exchange. The New World also gained new crops and plants.
Before the Columbian Exchange, there were no oranges in Florida, no bananas in Ecuador, or coffee beans in
Columbia. Wheat, something almost taken for granted when you look at the rows and rows of breads for sale at the
grocery store, was also introduced by Europeans. And sugar, a necessity for the average kid’s diet, was also brought
over by Europeans and thrived in the Caribbean.
Unlike crops, the major exchange in animals was from the Old World to the New World. The first European export
was the horse, which was quickly adopted by nomadic people of North and South America, who used the added
mobility to hunt bison or wage war. Texas would have no cattle if the Spanish had not originally brought them over.
Sheep, pigs, and chickens were also brought over by the Spanish. So the incredible, edible egg was not a breakfast
staple in North America until the Spanish arrived with chickens.
The New World did not have a large variety of animals in comparison to the Old World, so there was no large transfer
of animals back to the Old World.
The deadliest result of the Columbian Exchange was the transfer of diseases to new parts of the world.
Overwhelmingly, this transfer occurred from the Old World to the New World. Contact with Europeans almost
always resulted in epidemics of diseases that devastated Native-American populations. Since they had lived and
evolved in isolation from the rest of the world for thousands of years, Native-Americans had not built up any natural
immunities to the diseases that the Europeans brought over such as measles, smallpox, influenza, or bubonic plague.
Central Mexico had an estimated population of 25 million in 1519. By 1580, the native population was down to 2
million, with most of the population killed through disease. In Peru, the population declined from 10 million to 1.5
million (that’s almost 9 out of every 10 people being killed).
Scarcely any society on Earth remained unaffected by the Columbian Exchange. Since the voyages of Columbus and
his successors, no kitchen, garden, or medicine cabinet has ever been the same.
1. Define the term “Columbian Exchange.”
2. What was one agricultural reason that allowed the Old World to support higher populations after the Columbian
3. How come European diseases were so deadly to Native-Americans?
4. Use the article to complete the following chart. Mark down where various plants, animals, and diseases
come from: the Old World or New World
Origins of Plants, Animals, and Diseases
Old World New World