Question Drew Education

The Columbian Exchange - Positive and Negative Effects

What were the positive and negative effects of the Columbian Exchange on the New and Old World?

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It is impossible to state with certainty the full range of effects of the Columbian Exchange – this was an inevitable occurrence, taking place alongside the decisive, enduring point of contact between the Old and New Worlds. Though there had been isolated instances of travel between the Americas and other continents prior to Columbus’ 1492 voyage, none of them resulted in the mass intercontinental communication, cultural exchange and subsequent colonisation that was the legacy of Columbus’ ‘discovery’. Had this contact not happened, either then or at a later time, our current world would be completely and unfathomably different on every level.

Specifically, with regard to the cultural exchange aspect, a number of repercussions are precisely traceable. Those that may most readily be regarded as beneficial are the transplantation of botanical and animal species, a vast range of which became vital for sustenance and economy in their new locations. New World crops like potatoes, tomatoes and peanuts thrived in Europe and Asia, growing abundantly even in previously unproductive regions. A mirror effect took place with commodities like coffee and sugarcane in the Americas. In all continents, these innovations expedited human prosperity, leading us towards our current global civilisation.

Although certain Native American cultures were arguably beneficiaries of some elements of the exchange too, in the use they were able to make of Old World livestock like horses, facilitating, for a time, a similarly prosperous shift towards hunting bison and capitalising on new territories like the Great Plains, the negative impacts of the contact undeniably fell upon them most of all, and the worst among these were their reception of Old World diseases. Measles and smallpox all but obliterated Natives’ presence on the continent, killing an estimated 80-95 percent of the population. Though the scale of Old World contamination by New World diseases is not comparable, it was also present, with syphilis being the most notable development in this direction.

In summary, the benefits of the exchange can be viewed as the increased fertility and productivity over much of the world due to food and animal transplantation and trade, while the immediate negative effects were the exchange of diseases.