Columbian Exchange

Ramy Gadalla
World History
21September 2016

The Columbian Exchange: Medical Innovation or Demographic Catastrophe?

Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas came with multiple biological and cooking tradition implications. Such implications transformed whole nations into consolidating their identity and establishing their superiority over indigenous people. The Columbian exchange strengthened the identities of several Old World nations through food traditions and, specifically, the Spaniards by having immunity to more diseases than the Amerindians. This essay will first show how Columbus’ voyages helped strengthen the national identities of nations within the Old World by establishing food traditions and medical applications for food. Second, it will show how the biological exchange of diseases established European superiority and white racial dominance.

As grain was discovered during the late Paleolithic era 12,000 years ago, 4000 BCE, people started moving away from hunter-gatherer life-style and into settling and building city states (Standage 11). Because grain was stored for long periods without decaying, people had a reliable food source which enabled them to grow in numbers and to have more time for artisanship and skilled work. Therefore, populations grew, establishing city states and inventing new technology. With this incident we see food shaping the harbingers of the nations and societies yet to come.


During Columbus voyages in the 1490s, the Old World, including Mexico, Italy, and China were eager for a change in their food menu. They had put up with a dull menu for years, including insects’ eggs and grub-insect larvae (Earle 688). Some nations had never been exposed to meat, maize, spices, and tomatoes before. As the different societies became introduced to the same food, different societies used and cooked food differently. For example, the same meat would be used by Mexicans in Taco, by the Chinese in stir-fry, and by the Italians in spicy meatballs beside the polentas (Schwartz 59). Therefore, the culinary habits of food strengthened the identities of nations who worked to perpetuate those traditions within their culture, passing them on to next generations.

The Columbian exchange’s effects did not stop there. The Native Americans being never exposed to most domesticated animals, lacked immunity to diseases, like smallpox, measles, typhus, influenza, malaria, and yellow fever. As the Europeans and Africans came in contact with the Native Americans who lacked immunity to the Old World diseases, the Native Americans began to die in appalling numbers (Strayer 406). Therefore, the Columbian exchange created a disaster for the Amerindians, devastating their demographics. The increasing mortality of the Native Americans compared to the Europeans changed the “fluid concepts of difference into the fixed models of race,” increasing the white European dominance (Earle 689).

The devastating effects of disease were heralded before being able to exterminate the Europeans. The Europeans quickly realized that the source of sickening and exercised the theory of the “six non-natural things,” the climate, food, exercise, sleep, evacuation, and emotions to overcome the challenging effects of the different environment they inhabited. Carefulness with the diet even when traveling to a different area within Europe was known for overcoming the devastating effects of the climate (Earle 696). Furthermore, care for the diet pushed the Europeans to practice the new field of medicine, the humoral theory. For example, the cold and dry, phlegmatic people, were advised to eat hot, moist foods, like sugar. Whereas, the cold and damp, melancholic people, were advised to eat hot, dry foods, like black pepper (Earle 693). Therefore, the drastic health conditions affecting the Spaniards combined with their carefulness influenced them to consolidate in terms of their practice of medicine.

The same Columbian Exchange that caused the Native Americans to die in appalling numbers caused the Europeans to have greater sense of national identity racial superiority through their practice of medicine and food traditions. The Europeans analyzed the source of their illness, the food, and dissected that source, returning back to their European food, causing the mortality rate and illness to decrease. After being marginalized compared to the Asian civilizations, nations in Europe, like Spain and Italy, became consolidated through medical practice, trumping disease, and started to play a central role in globalization.

Works Cited

Earle, Rebecca. “‘If You Eat Their Food...’: Diets and Bodies in Early Colonial Spanish America.” The American Historical Review, vol. 115, no. 3, 2010, pp. 688-713.

Schwartz, John. “The Great Food Migration.” Newsweek, 1991, pp. 58-62.

Standage, Tom. A History of the World in 6 Glasses. New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2006. Print.

Strayer, Robert W., and Eric W. Nelson. Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print.