Although Christopher Columbus was not the first European to reach America (Leif Ericson predates him by hundreds of years), the arrival of Columbus in the “New World” (on a quest to open new trade routes) changed everything. Although it wasn’t Columbus’ intended destination, a lasting connection between Europe and the Americas was established; cultures and resources were irrevocably bridged; and a world divided by prehistoric continental drift was reunited.
The exchange of cultures, plants, animals, and people, and, unfortunately, diseases has come to be known as the “Columbian Exchange,” a term coined by Alfred Crosby in 1972). Many of the revelations shared between these conflicting cultures were agricultural and newfound knowledge would eventually impact the way crops were grown on both sides of the ocean.
Native Americans are perceived to have been formidable hunters and gatherers. While they could certainly hunt and gather with the best of them, Native Americans had also established farming in the Americas long before the arrival of Columbus. The three primary crops cultivated by the Native Americans were know as the “three sisters.” They learned that corn (called “maize”), squash and climbing beans together created a symbiosis. Corn provided stalks for beans to climb, beans fortified the soil, and squash created a natural groundcover to retain moisture and prevent weeds. Native Americans also pioneered the concept of crop rotation to maintain healthy soil and practiced many of the tenets of permaculture still in use today.
With the arrival of Europeans came the tools for widespread cultivation of native and imported crops in the New World. Oxen and plows brought from Europe expanded farmlands, and other beasts-of-burden made the transportation of people and harvests over greater distances possible. Domesticated animals were not a prominent part of Native American culture before 1492, but soon horses, cows and pigs brought from Europe became an important part of American life.
Many of the plants utilized by Native Americans were new to those early visitors. The Columbian Exchange introduced exotic crops like corn, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, tomatoes, peanuts and blueberries to Europe. Able to thrive in difficult soil types, many of these new plants would become essential crops throughout Europe. The increase in edible crops was so significent, it led to unprecedented population growth for generations to come.
The exchange of viable crops was not one sided. Non-native grains like wheat, barley and rice became commonplace on American soil and increased the variety of crops that could be stored through the winter. Other new plants like grapes, apples and turnips also arrived by ship to become part of a new landscape of American agriculture.
The integration of new crops, tools and farming practices didn’t happen overnight, but it all began in 1492 with the journey of those three ships. The plants and growing methods shared in those early years revolutionized farming forever. A chance encounter that changed the world.