The 'Columbian Exchange': How Discovering the Americas Transformed the World

PHOTO:  The Columbian Exchange: How Discovering the Americas Transformed the World

Columbus' arrival in the Americas sparked the globalization of animals, plants and microbes. A recent book takes a closer look at how items from the New World, such as potatoes, guano and rubber, quickly and radically transformed the rest of the planet.

Tobacco, potatoes and turkeys came to Europe from America. In exchange, Europeans brought wheat, measles and horses. But who ever thinks about earthworms? Yet they, too, were brought to America by Europeans, and hardly with fewer consequences than those of other, more famous immigrants.

Extinct in large parts of North America since the Ice Age, earthworms began spreading there once again following Christopher Columbus' voyage. Wherever this species appeared in American forests, it changed the landscape, aerating the soil, breaking down fallen foliage and accelerating erosion and nutrient exchange. Earthworms make it easier for some plants to grow, while robbing others of habitat. They take away living space from other bugs, while providing a new source of food for some birds.

In short, a forest with worms is a different one from a forest without them. As a result, the earthworm started transforming America.

This surprising anecdote is just one of many compiled by journalist Charles Mann in his latest book, "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created," now available in German translation. Where Mann's previous best-seller, "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus," focused on the history of the pre-Columbian Americas, he now turns his attention to the changes brought about by Europeans' discovery of this continent.

No other person, Mann suggests, changed the face of the Earth as radically as Columbus did. Columbus' crossing of the Atlantic, Mann says, marked the start of a new age, not only for the Americas but also for Europe, Asia and Africa.

It was the dawn of the era of global trade. Oceans no longer represented barriers to people, goods, animals, plants and microbes. It was as though Pangaea, the supercontinent that broke apart some 150 million years ago, had been reunited in a geological blink of the eye.

Before the ships Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria set sail in 1492, not only was the existence of the Americas unknown to the rest of the world, but China and Europe also knew little about one another. A century later, the world looked very different. Spanish galleons sailed into Chinese harbors bearing silver mined by Africans in South America. Spanish cloth merchants received Chinese silk in exchange, delivered by middlemen in Mexico. And wealthy people looking for relaxation -- whether in Madrid, Mecca or Manila -- lit up tobacco leaves imported from the Americas.

Rousingly told and with a great deal of joy in the narrative details, Mann tells the story of the creation of the globalized world, offering up plenty of surprises along the way. Who among us knew the role the sweet potato played in China's population explosion? Who knew that improving agricultural yield with bird droppings as fertilizer began in Peru? Certainly few know what a decisive role malaria-carrying mosquitoes played in the fate of the United States.

The 'Columbian Exchange'

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