The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492

The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492

The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492

The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492


Thirty years ago, Alfred Crosby published a small work that illuminated a simple point, that the most important changes brought on by the voyages of Columbus were not social or political, but biological in nature. The book told the story of how 1492 sparked the movement of organisms, both large and small, in both directions across the Atlantic. This Columbian exchange, between the Old World and the New, changed the history of our planet drastically and forever.

The book The Columbian Exchange changed the field of history drastically and forever as well. It has become one of the foundational works in the burgeoning field of environmental history, and it remains one of the canonical texts for the study of world history. This 30th anniversary edition of The Columbian Exchange includes a new preface from the author, reflecting on the book and its creation, and a new foreword by J. R. McNeill that demonstrates how Crosby established a brand new perspective for understanding ecological and social events. As the foreword indicates, The Columbian Exchange remains a vital book, a small work that contains within the inspiration for future examinations into what happens when two peoples, separated by time and space, finally meet.


I don't read my books after they come out because publication is a hard freeze that makes imprecisions, lapses in taste, and mistakes permanent and painful to the touch. However, in preparation for writing this preface I pulled The Columbian Exchange down from the shelf and did go through it. Flaws? Oh, yes; I'll talk over a few of them with you. But it is a good book; I'll talk some about that, too.

First, my apologies. Thirty years ago I used “man” to mean all members of the Homo sapiens species. So did most people, but it was stupid then and it is now. I used the word “race” as if I actually knew what it meant. I referred to the Maya as the most “sensitive” of all the indigenous peoples of the Americas without realizing how patronizing that is. Was I implying that Cortes might have invited the Maya for cocktails, but certainly not the Aztecs?

And so on. I invite you to make your own selection of yesterday's plastic blossoms pressed between the pages of my book.

I made some flat-out mistakes, some of them pretty good. All smallpox epidemics in previously uninfected populations did not produce thirty percent mortality rates. Only the worst epidemics . . .

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