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The Columbian Exchange: Crash Course World History #23

Hi. I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
World History and today’s video is kind of a response to one of the most riveting history
books you’ll ever read, the Columbian Exchange by David Crosby. He had a good year in 1969–
published The Columbian Exchange, played Woodstock, he was still on his first liver. What? It
was Albert Crosby? Gash! History, never being as interesting as I want it to be. Right, so it was Alfred Crosby Jr., and in
that book he wrote, “The big questions are really the only ones worth considering, and
colossal nerve has always been a prerequisite for such consideration.” I love it! Before 1492, we couldn’t really talk about
a world history at all, we could only talk about the different histories of separate
regions, but Columbus changed all of that, and everything else. The Columbian Exchange
irrevocably homogenized the world’s biological landscape. Since Columbus, the number of plant
and animal species has continually diminished, and the variation in species from place to
place has diminished dramatically. I mean, the first European visitors to the Americas
had never seen a tomato or a catfish; Native Americans had never seen a horse, and by making
our planet biologically singular, the Columbian Exchange completely remade the populations
of animals, particularly humans. And vitally, this cross-pollination also made possible
such wonders as contemporary pizza. [theme music] So we’re going to break the Columbian Exchange
down into four categories: Diseases, boy, you’re looking good Smallpox, I’m glad you’ve
been eliminated; Animals, Plants, and People. Mr. Green, Mr. Green! People are animals. Yeah, that’s true, me from the past, but just
for the sake of simplicity we’re– Also, when you think about it, microbes are
kinda animals and plants are, too, I mean– Oh my god, shut up before I kill you and create
a time travel paradox. Microbes, like those hairy blokes back there,
were a definite negative in terms of the Columbian Exchange. Terminology is hard here, but the
majority of Caribbean Islanders or Native Americans or Amerindians had exactly one response
to the arrival of Europeans: death. We can’t be sure of how many natives died
as a result of European arrival but it was definitely more than 50% and some estimates
place it as high as 90%. Historians used to blame European brutality, which was definitely
a factor, but the main culprit was disease. Smallpox is usually seen as the villain of
the story but it is more likely that a series of diseases in combination did the damage.
Along with smallpox, Americans were killed by measles and mumps, typhus, chicken pox,
none of which they had been previously exposed to. This astonishing decrease of population
was definitely the worst effect of these diseases, both psychologically and demographically. But the secondary effects were almost as bad.
For one thing the deaths of Aztec and Incan rulers touched off wars which made it easier
to spread disease, because you know, the number one way to catch smallpox is via hand-to-hand
combat. Plus leaders kept dying. Huayna Capac, the leader of the Incan empire, succumbed
to smallpox before Pizarro even arrived. His death led to a violent succession struggle
between his sons which was won by Atahualpa, who in turn was captured and killed by Pizarro.
And without that war, the Inca would have had a much better chance against the Spaniards,
whose numbers were comparatively tiny. A similar thing happened to the Aztecs. The Moctezuma
who eventually lost to Cortés was the nephew of a much more powerful king who died of smallpox.
And the death of that great king encouraged some of the smaller states in the Aztec empire to rebel,
and some of them even fought for the Spaniards. And another effect of disease was starvation,
because there simply weren’t enough people left to grow crops to feed the living. And
the malnutrition made survivors that much more susceptible to disease. In short, it
sucked. The transmission of disease largely went one
way, from the Old World to the New, but the Americans did have one gift for Europe: venereal
syphilis. It showed up in Europe around 1493, and even though Europeans are very fond of
ascribing syphilis to each other: Italians called it the French disease; the French called
it the disease of Naples; Poles called it the German disease; Russians called it the
Polish disease. The truth is, venereal syphilis was spread by sailors who’d returned from
the Americas. In fact, in his book, The Columbian Exchange,
Crosby tells it like this: “Sailors, by the nature of their profession, are men without
women and therefore men of many women. We can imagine no group more perfectly suited
for guaranteeing that venereal syphilis would have worldwide distribution.” Who says history
books are boring? Syphilis would go on to infect a veritable who’s who of Europe: from
Baudelaire to Gauguin to Nietzsche, not to mention numerous family members of the famously
infertile Tudor and Valois families, meaning that syphilis may be responsible for many
of those miserably boring dynastic power struggles of post-Columbus Europe. Anyway, nothing against
syphilis, but it pales in comparison to the devastation wrought by Old World diseases
arriving in the New World. But the New World did have one gift for the
Old World that was pretty destructive: tobacco. Oh, it’s time for the open letter and there’s
been a costume change? That doesn’t bode well. An Open Letter to Tobacco. But first let’s see what’s in the secret compartment
don’t be cinnamon don’t be cinnamon don’t be — dang it! I guess that I’m going to do the cinnamon
challenge. Oh, I am not happy about this Stan, for the record — alright, I’m going to do
the cinnamon challenge: one tablespoon of cinnamon in my mouth, no water. Huh, boy, that — that sucked. I, I uh regret
r-regret doing that to be honest with you. Dear Tobacco,
I just did something really stupid but at least it was cheap. I’m gonna tell you two
stories about smoking, the first come from my high school history teacher Raoul Meyer
who also writes Crash Course. When I was a senior in high school he walked up to me and
he said, “I want you to keep smoking. I want you to smoke until the day after your 65th
birthday, and then I want you to die so that I collect all of your social security.” That inspired me,
Mr. Meyer, to quit smoking just eight short years later. Here is an amazing statistic: cigarettes were
handed out to American servicemen during World War II and more soldiers who started smoking during
the war died from smoking than died from the war. So if the New World was looking to extract
some measure of revenge for smallpox, and measles, and chicken pox: Mission accomplished. Best Wishes,
John Green Now onto animals. American animals, like llamas
and guinea pigs, never really caught on in Eurasia. But imports to the Americas, like
pigs, cows and horses were revolutionary. Let’s go to the thought bubble: First of all, these animals, especially pigs,
completely remade the food supply. Pigs breed really quickly, they eat anything and they
turn into bacon, which made them heroes to the new world just as today they are heroes
to the internet. Here’s how quickly pigs breed: When Hernando de Soto arrived in Florida in
1539, he brought 13 pigs. By the time of his death, there were 700 – that was 3 years later.
The abundance of meat and plentiful land for agriculture and grazing meant that Europeans
in the Americas very rarely experienced famine, and despite what you may have learned about
religious and political freedom, the main reason Europeans came to America was to eat. Large European animals also changed the nature
of work in the Americas. Before Europeans, the largest beast of burden was the llama,
and at best it could carry like, 100 lbs. This meant that for the long distance travel
that the Inca engaged in, the primary transportation animal was Incas. Oxen, when combined with
their plows, made it possible to bring more land under cultivation and also made transportation
easier and more efficient, and plus European animals remade culture. The grossly stereotypical American Indian,
like from the movies, riding the Great Plains with an eagle feather headdress and war paint,
well he didn’t exist before the Columbian Exchange because there were no horses for
him to ride. And the introduction of horses allowed many Native Americans to abandon agriculture
in favor of a nomadic lifestyle because riding around hunting buffalo made them far richer
than farming ever had. Thanks Thought Bubble. While animals and diseases completely reshaped
the New World, it was New World plants that had the biggest effect on Eurasia. Sure, Europeans brought over some crops that
we now grow here in the Americas like wheat and grapes, both of which are necessary for
Catholic mass, but New World plants radically changed the lives of millions, maybe hundreds
of millions of Africans, Asians and Europeans, specifically by making pizza possible. [Heavenly singing, “It was the greatest gift
of all.”] I mean until 500 years ago Italians lived
without tomatoes, without modern pizza or marinara sauce or pizza or ketchup or pizza
or even pizza. Indians lived without curry, which contains chilies, a New World food.
Persians lived without corn, which is a New World food, as are beans and potatoes and
avocados and peanuts and blueberries – the list goes on and on. And these New World crops led to probably
the greatest population increase in history. To quote Crosby, “It is crudely true that
if man’s caloric intake is sufficient, he will somehow stagger to maturity, and he will
reproduce.” And New World food was far more caloric than
Old World food, which is the central reason that the world population doubled between
1650 and 1850. Plants like corn and potatoes could grow in soils that were useless for
Old World crops. Potatoes were actually introduced to Europe as an aphrodisiac, but it turns
out that you have to distill those potatoes into vodka before they have the desired effect.
Anyway, if potatoes are an aphrodisiac, the Irish quickly became the hottest people on
Earth. An acre and a half of potato cultivation could
feed an Irish family for a year, and the average Irish worker often ate 10 lbs. of potatoes
every day. Surviving primarily on potatoes, the Irish more than doubled their population
between 1754 and 1845, when the Potato Famine showed up and ruined everything. And it wasn’t just Europe. Manioc, or cassava
is a New World plant with roots that provide more calories than any other plant on Earth,
provided they are properly processed (otherwise they’re poisonous). Manioc is so prevalent
in Africa that many Africans swear that the plant is native to the continent, but it isn’t. Nor are sweet potatoes, and while New World
grains never replaced rice in Southeast, or East Asia, the sweet potato was so common
that it is known as the “poor person’s staple” in China. Even in Japan, the tomb of the farmer
who is reputed to have first brought them to the islands is known as the Temple of the
Sweet Potato. And it’s also worth noting that corn, while it may not feature prominently
in European diets, has been the central source of food for animals in Europe for centuries. And in fact, that’s still the case. In 2005,
58% of the corn grown in America went to animal feed (is the kind of thing you learn when
you live in Indiana). Alright, so last but not least, the Columbian
exchange involved the transfer of lots of people. Again, in the early stages this movement
was mostly one way, with Europeans and Africans – the Africans usually against their will
– making their way to the Americas. So the Columbian Exchange led to the re-population
of the New World following the disease devastation of the initial encounter. And better nutrition
allowed the population of the Old World to grow which in turn placed population pressure
on Eurasia which led to more people coming to the Americas. In the process, the world’s
human inhabitants became more genetically and ethnically interconnected. But it also
led to the horrors of Atlantic slavery, which we’ll be discussing next week. What are we to make of the Columbian Exchange?
It devastated the population of the Americas, it led to the widespread slavery of Africans,
but it also allowed for a worldwide population increase and the lives of some Natives including
Plains tribes like the Lakota became better and more secure, at least for a while. Fewer people have starved since the Columbian
Exchange began, but the diversity of life on Earth has diminished dramatically and planting crops
where they don’t belong has hurt the environment. So on the whole, should we be grateful for
the Columbian Exchange? And should we work to continue and deepen its legacy of globalism
and monoculture? Crosby didn’t think we were better off. “The
Columbian Exchange has included man, and he has changed the Old and New Worlds sometimes
inadvertently, sometimes intentionally, often brutally. It is possible that he and the plants
and animals he brings with him have caused the extinction of more species of life forms
in the last four hundred years than the usual processes of evolution might kill off in a
million… The Columbian Exchange has left us with not a richer but a more impoverished
genetic pool. We, all of the life on the planet, are the less for Columbus, and the impoverishment
will increase.” But let’s give you the last word today: Do
you agree with Crosby? Are longer, healthier lives for more humans worth the sacrifice
of an impoverished biosphere? And most importantly, how will your conclusions about those questions
shape the way that you live your life? Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller. Our script supervisor is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history
teacher, Raoul Meyer, and myself, and our graphics team is Thought Bubble. Last week’s phrase of the week was “Mario
and Luigi,” thanks for that suggestion. If you want to suggest future phrases of the
week you can do so in comments or you can also guess at this week’s phrase of the
week, and ask questions about today’s video that will be answered by our team of historians.
Thanks for watching Crash Course, and as we say in my hometown, Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.


  1. plazam10 Author

    Casabe (Name) is not poison, just boil it as regular potatoes, a little of garlic, olive oil, lots onions and melted butter and you have a very popular Caribbean dish.


    Two native catfish in Europe, the Wels being the most prevalent. Coastal Spaniards and Portuguese probably had never seen them, but the rest of Europe probably did.

  3. Stefan Walicord Author

    Thing is, it was inevitable. Somebody would have found the other anyhow, and as European civilization had a new-found (but deeply rooted) emphasis on discovery, they would have found it at some point. New world civilizations did not have those emphases or abilities, and so the Old would have found the New anyway. While it could have happened less violently, considering human nature, it was… well… to be expected. Not justified, but humans are pretty trash, so it could have gone a lot worse. As for the disease and biodiversity loss, both were inevitable.

  4. Eric Carbonell Author

    We know that it’s PC to criticize Columbus (his name was Colon)But it is not in the nature of humans to leave things as they are. It is our nature and habit to take what can be taken. Colon was neither the first nor the last. Would you prefer to be sleeping on the ground and living to be 34 but with more biodiversity? Good with the bad baby

  5. Vexian Tillson Author

    😦 John green literally does everything! This is crazy, I’ve just gotten into his books (which are amazing) and now I just realized this channel is home speaking, he also does other YouTube stuff I’m pretty sure. This is crazy!

  6. Mike Mastropierro Author

    On Joe Rogan’s show, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that the greatest thing about Columbus and the resultant intermingling is that it reunified human DNA after it split into two when the Bering land bridge disappeared.

  7. Quite the idea Author

    To (sort of) answer John's question from the end: it's important to remember that we may not be the last form of intelligent life on earth. Humans and AI will someday probably merge, and/or AI's intelligence will radically accelerate to create life forms far more intelligent than we can currently imagine. This is the coming Intelligence Explosion. This would never happen with no Computing Revolution. Which wouldn't have happened without an Industrial Revolution. Which (arguably) wouldn't have happened without a Columbian Exchange to prop up the world economy. If that's right—and if the Intelligence Explosion is more utopian than dystopian—then I submit the Exchange was ultimately overall a good thing.

  8. Ban Author

    Isn't the question of whether or not the Columbian exchange was a good thing, an irrelevant one? If an encounter between two vastly different cultures is inevitable, I think there's no point on getting hung up on the merits of the exchange. Debating the merits is like acknowledging that a debate should exist on whether or not they should have explored the America's. But it was an inevitable event, so the subsequent tragedy and exchange of ideas was also inevitable. So who cares about the positive or negative impact. I think a more more interesting thing to discuss is the manner that the European powers colonized the America's and the lasting legacy that those imperial powers left behind. That's the real conversation worth having

  9. Luma M Author

    Mas aqui que esta a questão, todas essas coisas boas poderiam acontecem ser a enorme escravidão ou massacre. Ou seja, não se pode olhar como algo positivo.

  10. The Soviet Union Author

    I'm not sure how I feel about the Exchange. On one hand, I probably wouldn't exist if it wasn't there, but on the other hand, it wouldn't have killed so many people and enslaved others. But here's the thing: Humans are smart. Europeans would've found/rediscovered the Americas eventually. So it's all just one question: Should it have been sooner, or later?

  11. Kimberly Moraes Walker Author

    Because we rely on a certain balance of nature for human survival, we may get to a point where loss of other species negatively affects the very existence of humanity. Currently, we are losing 150 to 200 species each day, which is close to 1000 times the natural rate of extinction.

  12. Rosebud Girl Author

    My WHAP exam is this Thursday (it's currently Monday). I'm so stressed! I've been studying hard all year and yet I'm still cramming nervously. Anyone else in the same boat?

  13. Cecily George Author

    The cinnomon challenge made me laugh so hard!!! I'm in a starbucks studying, (this is my homework) and my older sister just looked at me and said "stop watching funny videos, do your homework" XD She still doesn't believe this is my actual history assignment!! LMAOOOO

  14. Lavender Orchids Author

    hey can we talk about how syphillis is an STD and was only present in animals like cattle or sheep until the sailors from the Old World arrived?

  15. Tyler Newman Author

    So, about pigs…

    Yeah, they definitely breed a lot, but as pointed out (somewhere) in Jared Diamond's popular Guns, Germs, and Steel, pigs are filthy. They eat anything, and for whatever reason their diseases seem to adapt well to us (i think same reason we can use their insulin, if I understand pig bio – which, i probably don't). But, among other things, de Soto was not great at keeping all his pigs together (hence the wild hog population throughout much of de Soto's trail). All these pigs carried these Euro disease (and a bio-stew of other pathogens) throughout the new world.

    And horses,
    While, yes, horses came with the Spanish in the 16th century, they had similar problems keeping their herd together. They also used natives as horse-slaves (the ones who weren't otherwise enslaved). Natives didn't passively submit to their devastation; many would migrate away from Spanish presence and bring the horses with them. By the time Anglo-French-American settlers began pushing out, several robust cultures began to take shape around the horse. The Lakota were master horsemen before they ever met a European.

    Unfortunately, the same resistance and inter-relations among Native groups also spread those diseases. But, it's important to remember that European incursion happened over the course of 400ish years. In that 400 years, Native cultures shifted, adapted, and resisted. A lot of discussion seem to box that 400 years into "contact, contagion, conquer," focusing on the European impact. But, most Native peoples were eventually subjugated by a mature and established U.S.A, not some colonial, European proxy.

  16. Prometheus Author

    Technically, there wouldn't have been a paradox, because there would just be an alternate timeline, in which your younger self would have been mysteriously murdered by someone who doesn't exist in that timeline.

  17. Isaac Graf Author

    haha wow ive really warmed up to this video series, despite my disagreements with the first several videos. John Green is fantastic and delightful and hilarious. and the writing is way good.

  18. parisite99 Author

    Anyone else watch these because they are interested in history and not trying to pass a test that they should have studied long ago for? Lmfao

  19. Ally kat Author

    I should probably make it clear that while the belief that venereal syphilis only existed in your post Columbian Exchange was considered true once scientist have since found evidence of it pre Columbian Exchange in Europe

  20. Jakub Wojciechowski Author

    Why are then natives killed by the European diseases, but not other way around? Shouldn't the arriving of Culumbus end of the world then?


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