When Europe and the Americas discovered one another, the exchange of cultures went both ways. Europeans brought firearms, horses and diseases, and native peoples contributed maize, tobacco and women’s rights. Native Americans alone domesticated and actually genetically modified several of the most important food crops throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Many products, for better or worse, have had an impact on agriculture, cuisine and medicine. Native American political concepts, meanwhile, contributed to the foundation of the United States.
Maize or Corn
Maize is believed to have its origins in a Mexican native grass called teosinte. There is archaeological and DNA evidence that about 7,500 years ago Mesoamerican farmers, began cultivating a more tender, high-yield plant. The developing plant moved along trade routes until it reached much of the Americas. It became a common food crop in native cooking, usually as a flour grain but also as a vegetable. When English settlers discovered the plant, they called it “corn,” a word meaning “grain.” They used it as flour, as livestock feed and as a vegetable.
Potatoes, Tomatoes and Peppers
The potato was domesticated 7,000 years ago in Peru. It was slow to be accepted by Europeans but later became so important to their diets that a potato blight caused a devastating famine in Ireland. The tomato was also slow to be accepted by Europeans, but eventually became a staple. Varieties of capsicum, such as chili, sweet and green peppers; cayenne; and paprika were domesticated in the New World about 7,000 years ago. They quickly became popular in Africa, India and China, where spicy foods were common, and later in Europe. Other food contributions include peanuts, chocolate, vanilla, sunflowers, avocados and maple syrup.
Tobacco, Drugs and Medicines
According to the World Health Organization, tobacco began to be cultivated in the Americas around 6,000 B.C. and natives of the Americas began using it around 18 A.D. Columbus’ crews observed natives in Cuba and Haiti growing and smoking tobacco leaves, for pleasure and for the treatment of various ills. English settlers began using it as soon as they made contact with their native neighbors. The name “tobacco,” actually the name of the Y-shaped pipe natives used to inhale the smoke, was misapplied to the plant and the name stuck with Europeans. Other contributions include peyote, syrup of ipecac and quinine.
From Many, One
Before the United States adopted its motto, “E pluribus Unum,” -- “From Many, One” in Latin, the Iroquois Confederacy had been a peaceful league of nations for centuries. The Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida and Cayuga peoples hammered out their binding code in the 1400s, and. The Tuscarora joined the league in the 1700s. Americans, especially Benjamin Franklin, searched for models for the United States Constitution in the Bible, ancient Rome and Greek writings, and England’s Magna Carta. Franklin praised the Iroquois Confederacy which included freedom of religion and a justice system. When white Americans consulted the Iroquois Constitution it was an oral document, but its power was unmistakable.
- National Humanities Center: The Columbian Exchange: Plants, Animals, and Disease Between the Old and New Worlds
- New York Times: Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years
- PBS – When Worlds Collide: The Journey of New World Foods
- World Health Organization: The History of Tobacco
- Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine: Medicinal uses of tobacco in history
- University of Nevada, Las Vegas: Native Plant Use
- New York Times: Iroquois Constitution: A Forerunner to Colonists' Democratic Principles
- Fordham University Modern History Sourcebook: The Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy
- Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images