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The Columbian Exchange. What American foods arrived in Europe after the conquest, and what factors dictated their acceptance or rejection? What European foods were introduced to the New World, and how have they shaped its economic and social evolution?

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The Columbian Exchange

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What American foods arrived in Europe after the conquest, and what factors dictated their acceptance or rejection?
  • What European foods were introduced to the New World, and how have they shaped its economic and social evolution?
  • How have new foods been incorporated into existing cultural traditions in both America and Europe?
new world foods
New World Foods
  • Maize
  • Potatoes
  • Fruits – pineapple, avocado, chirimoya
  • Chocolate
  • Not many new-world meats adopted by Europeans – e.g. cuy, armadillo, iguana, insects.
  • Turkey an exception.
  • Indians hadn’t domesticated many animals.
old world foods
Old World Foods
  • Wheat
  • Wine
  • Olive oil
  • Meat – pigs, cows, sheep, chickens.
  • Fruits – oranges. Bernal Díaz claims in his account of the conquest of Mexico that he was the first person to plant an orange tree in that country. Díaz states that, upon landing near Veracruz, he ‘sowed 7 or 8 seeds of oranges, which I had brought from Cuba’.
cash crops
Cash Crops
  • Sugar
  • Coffee
  • Bananas
  • All cultivated in America for European consumption.
  • Major social and economic impact.
factors influencing acceptance of new foods
Factors influencing acceptance of new foods
  • New foods more likely to be accepted if they resemble ones that are already familiar. Cuys and iguanas not seen as food by Europeans, who don’t eat rodents or reptiles. Potatoes also suspect. Turkeys and beans less alien and more readily adopted.
People generally unwilling to change their staple foods. Spaniards therefore largely stick to wheat, whilst Indians continue to eat maize. These foods are integral to religious and cultural life as well as diet, so hard to give up.
Necessity often forced people to change food habits. Famine and hunger a major reason for adopting new foods. Irish accept potato readily. Conquistador Cabeza de Vaca forced to subsist on lizards, spiders’ eggs and even soil in order to stay alive following a failed expedition to Florida.
Adoption of new foods influenced by availability. Some species don’t acclimatise well to new environments. Others cannot be transported quickly enough to prevent them from rotting – e.g. pineapple.
Exchange of foods determined to a certain extent by luck and fortunate timing.
  • Alan Davidson: ‘If a new food from America appeared, perhaps only by chance, in the right place at the right time, it could be adopted almost at once, whilst in other, less favourable circumstances it could languish for centuries without being exploited’.
  • Crosby: Columbian Exchange ‘probably the greatest biological revolution in the Americas since the end of the Pleistocene era’.
  • Contributed to population growth in Europe by diversifying and improving the diet.
  • Had an impact on Africa and Asia, too. Manioc a staple crop in the Congo.
Spaniards dispersed American foods around the New World – e.g. chocolate to Peru, potatoes to Virginia.
  • Europeans adopted mainly Indian plants, whilst Indians benefited most from European meats. Europeans also ate more meat in America.
  • Some American foods adopted by the elite (chocolate), others marketed as a famine food for the poor (potatoes).
cultural impact
Cultural Impact
  • Capybaras eaten during Lent because they live in the water and are conveniently classified as ‘fish’.
  • Pork fat also eaten during Lent.
  • Question of whether chocolate breaks the ecclesiastical fast.
New European drinks change Indians’ relationship to alcohol.
  • American foods fitted into European medical theories such as the theory of the 4 humours – e.g. chocolate.