The Columbian Exchange: A history of Disease, Food, and Ideas

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This booklet refers to the exchange of diseases, ideas, food, crops, and populations between the New World and the Old World crops, and populations between the New World and the Old World following the voyage to the Americas by Christo following the voyage to the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. per Columbus in 1492.
1. Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 24, Number 2—Spring 2010—Pages 163–188
The Columbian Exchange:
A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas
Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian
he Columbian Exchange refers to the exchange of diseases, ideas, food
crops, and populations between the New World and the Old World
following the voyage to the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
The Old World—by which we mean not just Europe, but the entire Eastern
Hemisphere—gained from the Columbian Exchange in a number of ways. Discov-
eries of new supplies of metals are perhaps the best known. But the Old World also
gained new staple crops, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava. Less
calorie-intensive foods, such as tomatoes, chili peppers, cacao, peanuts, and pineap-
ples were also introduced, and are now culinary centerpieces in many Old World
countries, namely Italy, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries (tomatoes),
India and Korea (chili peppers), Hungary (paprika, made from chili peppers), and
Malaysia and Thailand (chili peppers, peanuts, and pineapples). Tobacco, another
New World crop, was so universally adopted that it came to be used as a substitute
for currency in many parts of the world. The exchange also drastically increased
the availability of many Old World crops, such as sugar and coffee, which were
particularly well-suited for the soils of the New World.
The exchange not only brought gains, but also losses. European contact
enabled the transmission of diseases to previously isolated communities, which
■ Nathan Nunn is an Assistant Professor of Economics, Harvard University, Cambridge,
Massachusetts. During the 2009–2010 academic year, he was the Trione Visiting Professor of
Economics at Stanford University, Stanford, California. Nancy Qian is an Assistant Professor
of Economics, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Both authors are also Faculty
Research Fellows, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Cambridge, Massachu-
setts, and Affiliates, Bureau for Research and Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD).
Their e-mail addresses are 〈[email protected]
[email protected]〉〉 and 〈[email protected]
[email protected]〉〉.
2. 164 Journal of Economic Perspectives
caused devastation far exceeding that of even the Black Death in fourteenth-century
Europe. Europeans brought deadly viruses and bacteria, such as smallpox, measles,
typhus, and cholera, for which Native Americans had no immunity (Denevan, 1976).
On their return home, European sailors brought syphilis to Europe. Although less
deadly, the disease was known to have caused great social disruption throughout
the Old World (Sherman, 2007).
The effects of the Columbian Exchange were not isolated to the parts of the
world most directly participating in the exchange: Europe and the Americas. It also
had large, although less direct, impacts on Africa and Asia. European exploration
and colonization of the vast tropical regions of these continents was aided by the
New World discovery of quinine, the first effective treatment for malaria. Moreover,
the cultivation of financially lucrative crops in the Americas, along with the devas-
tation of native populations from disease, resulted in a demand for labor that was
met with the abduction and forced movement of over 12 million Africans during
the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries (Lovejoy, 2000; Manning, 1990).
The Columbian Exchange has provided economists interested in the long-
term effects of history on economic development with a rich historical laboratory.
Economic studies have thus far mainly focused on how European institutions,
through colonialism, were transplanted to non-European parts of the world. The
seminal papers by Engerman and Sokoloff (1997), La Porta, Lopez-de-Silanes,
Shleifer, and Vishny (1997, 1998), and Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson (2001)
examine the effects that European contact, taking the form of formal and informal
colonial rule, had on other societies.1
In this paper, we attempt to broaden the scope of economic studies of the
Columbian Exchange by studying aspects of the exchange that have received less
attention. First, we pay particular attention to the effects that the exchange had on
the Old World, rather than examining outcomes in the New World. Second, rather
than concentrating on the effects of the exchange that work through institutional
and political structures, we focus on the less-studied, but no less-important chan-
nels; namely, the biological exchange of food crops and disease. Our hope is that
our broad descriptive overview of some of the neglected aspects of the Columbian
Exchange will spur further more-rigorous studies of the long-term consequences of
these aspects of the exchange.
We are aware of only a handful of empirical papers that either focus on the
effect of the exchange on the Old World or focus on channels other than legal
institutions. Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson (2005) examine the effects of the
three-corner Atlantic trade on Europe. They argue that the profits from the trade
strengthened the merchant class, which resulted in stronger probusiness institutions
and increased economic growth. Two studies have recently explored the effects from
Subsequent studies have since added to the understanding of the long-term effects of colonial rule
and European contact on New World Societies. See for example Mitchener and McLean (2003),
Berkowitz and Clay (2005, 2006), Acemoglu, Bautista, Querubin, and Robinson (2008), Dell (2008),
and Nunn (2008a), as well as the review by Nunn (2009).
3. Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian 165
the botanical exchange. In Nunn and Qian (2009), using a generalized difference-
in-differences empirical strategy, we find that the introduction of potatoes to the Old
World resulted in a significant increase in population and urbanization. Our finding
complements earlier research by Mokyr (1981) that estimates the effects of the potato
on population growth within Ireland. Hersh and Voth (2009) examine the benefits
that arose from the increase in land for cultivating the Old World crops coffee and
sugar after 1492. According to their calculations (see their table 9), the increased
availability of sugar increased English welfare by 8 percent by 1850, while the greater
availability of coffee increased welfare by 1.5 percent.
In the following section, we examine the most devastating and unfortunate
consequences of the Columbian Exchange, which arose from the exchange of
disease between the Old and New Worlds. Next, we turn to the effects of the
exchange that arose from the transfer of foods between the New and Old Worlds.
We then examine the indirect consequences of the exchange on Africa and Asia.
The final section of the paper offers concluding thoughts.
The Spread of Disease from the Old World to the New
The list of infectious diseases that spread from the Old World to the New is
long; the major killers include smallpox, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox,
bubonic plague, typhus, and malaria (Denevan, 1976, p. 5). Because native popula-
tions had no previous contact with Old World diseases, they were immunologically
defenseless. Dobyns (1983, p. 34) writes that “before the invasion of peoples of the
New World by pathogens that evolved among inhabitants of the Old World, Native
Americans lived in a relatively disease-free environment. . . . Before Europeans
initiated the Columbian Exchange of germs and viruses, the peoples of the Amer-
icas suffered no smallpox, no measles, no chickenpox, no influenza, no typhus, no
typhoid or parathyroid fever, no diphtheria, no cholera, no bubonic plague, no
scarlet fever, no whooping cough, and no malaria.”
Although we may never know the exact magnitudes of the depopulation, it is
estimated that upwards of 80–95 percent of the Native American population was
decimated within the first 100–150 years following 1492 (Newson, 2001). Within
50 years following contact with Columbus and his crew, the native Taino popu-
lation of the island of Hispanola, which had an estimated population between
60,000 and 8 million, was virtually extinct (Cook, 1993). Central Mexico’s popula-
tion fell from just under 15 million in 1519 to approximately 1.5 million a century
later. Historian and demographer Nobel David Cook estimates that, in the end,
the regions least affected lost 80 percent of their populations; those most affected
lost their full populations; and a typical society lost 90 percent of its population
(Cook, 1998, p. 5).
The uncertainty surrounding the exact magnitude of the depopulation
of the Americas arises because we don’t know the extent to which disease may
4. 166 Journal of Economic Perspectives
have depopulated the regions beyond the initial point of contact before literate
European observers made physical contact with these populations (Dobyns, 1993).
If disease traveled faster than the explorers, it would have killed a significant
portion of native populations before direct contact, causing first-hand accounts
of initial population sizes to be biased downward. The result is that 1491 popula-
tion estimates for the Americas have varied wildly, from a lower-bound estimate
of approximately 8 million (Kroeber, 1939) to an upper-bound estimate of over
110 million people (Dobyns, 1966). Surprisingly, despite decades of research, the
range of the estimates has not narrowed, and no clear consensus has emerged
about whether the true figure lies closer to the high or low end of the range. For
examples of the opposing views, see Henige (1998) and Mann (2005).
Syphilis: A New World Disease?
There are very few examples of disease being spread from the New World to
the Old.2 The most notable exception, and by far the most controversial, is venereal
syphilis. Biologist Irwin Sherman (2007) lists venereal syphilis as one of the twelve
diseases that changed the world. This may seem surprising, given that today venereal
syphilis is a nonfatal disease that is effectively treated with penicillin. However, this
was not always the case. Early on, in the late fi fteenth and early sixteenth centuries,
the disease was frequently fatal, and its symptoms were much more severe. They
included genital ulcers, rashes, large tumors, severe pain, dementia, and eventual
death. Over time, as the disease evolved, its symptoms changed, becoming more
benign and less fatal. By the seventeenth century, syphilis had developed into the
disease that we know today (Crosby, 2003, pp. 151–53).
Two theories of the origins of venereal syphilis exist. The first, referred to as the
“Columbian hypothesis,” asserts that the disease-causing agent Treponema pallidum
originated in the New World and was spread in 1493 by Christopher Columbus
and his crew, who acquired it from the natives of Hispaniola through sexual
contact. Upon return to Spain, some of these men joined the military campaign
of Charles VIII of France and laid siege to Naples in 1495. Encamped soldiers
exposed the local populations of prostitutes, which amplified disease transmission.
Infected and disbanding mercenaries then spread the disease throughout Europe
when they returned home. Within five years of its arrival, the disease was epidemic
in Europe. Syphilis reached Hungary and Russia by 1497; Africa, the Middle East,
and India by 1498; China by 1505; Australia by 1515; and Japan by 1569 (Crosby,
1969; Dennie, 1962; Harrison, 1959; Snodgrass, 2003; Sherman, 2007).
The second theory, the “pre-Columbian hypothesis,” asserts that the disease
had always existed in the Old World, and the fact that there were no accounts of the
disease prior to the 1490s is because prior to this time it had not been differentiated
One reason for this is that Eurasian societies had domesticated more animals than societies of the
Americas. Since many deadly human diseases originated as diseases among animals, this resulted in
more disease originating in and being spread from Europeans to Native Americans, rather than vice
versa (Diamond, 1997).
5. The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas 167
from other diseases with similar symptoms (Cockburn, 1961, 1963; Hackett, 1963,
1967; Holcomb, 1934, 1935). Proponents of the pre-Columbian hypothesis cite
pre-Exchange accounts of disease symptoms similar to venereal syphilis, as well as
skeletal remains with scars that are similar to scars left by syphilis. The debates over
the true origins of venereal syphilis have been a direct consequence of the difficulty
in distinguishing venereal syphilis from other diseases that had similar symptoms
and left similar bone scars (Parrot, 1879; Steinbock, 1976; Williams, 1932; Wright,
1971; Verano and Ubelaker, 1992).
Recent findings from phylogenetics (the evolutionary study of the genetic relat-
edness of different populations of organisms) have added valuable evidence to the
mystery of the origins of venereal syphilis. The evidence supports the Columbian
hypothesis that venereal syphilis is in fact a New World disease. The recent study by
Harper et al. (2008) found that the bacterium causing venereal syphilis arose rela-
tively recently in humans and is most closely related to a variation of the tropical
disease yaws found in a remote region of Guyana, South America. This relation-
ship is most consistent with venereal syphilis, or some early ancestor, originating in
the New World. After decades of debate, this powerful study showed that venereal
syphilis was indeed a New World disease.
The Transfer of New World Foods to the Old World
The transfer of foods between the Old and New Worlds during the Columbian
Exchange had important consequences for world history. Historian Alfred Crosby
(1989, p. 666) describes the significance of the transfer of food crops between the
continents, writing: “The coming together of the continents was a prerequisite for
the population explosion of the past two centuries, and certainly played an impor-
tant role in the Industrial Revolution. The transfer across the ocean of the staple
food crops of the Old and New Worlds made possible the former.”
There are two channels through which the Columbian Exchange expanded the
global supply of agricultural goods. First, it introduced previously unknown species
to the Old World. Many of these species—like potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize,
and cassava (also known as manioc)—resulted in caloric and nutritional improve-
ments over previously existing staples. Other crops such as tomatoes, cacao, and
chili peppers were not by themselves especially rich in calories, but complemented
existing foods by increasing vitamin intake and improving taste. In many instances,
the New World foods had an important effect on the evolution of local cuisines.
Chili peppers gave rise to spicy curries in India, to paprika in Hungary, and to spicy
kimchee in Korea. Tomatoes significantly altered the cuisine of Italy and other Medi-
terranean countries. Second, the discovery of the Americas provided the Old World
with vast quantities of relatively unpopulated land well-suited for the cultivation of
certain crops that were in high demand in Old World markets. Crops such as sugar,
coffee, soybeans, oranges, and bananas were all introduced to the New World, and
the Americas quickly became the main suppliers of these crops globally.
6. 168 Journal of Economic Perspectives
Table 1
The World’s Most Popular Foods in 2000
Average Daily Consumption Annual Production Land Harvested
(calories) (millions of tonnes) (millions of hectares)
Rice 567 Sugar cane 1,252.5 Wheat 215.5
Wheat 527 Rice 598.8 Rice 154.1
Sugar 196 Maize 592.5 Maize 137.0
Maize 147 Wheat 585.9 Soybeans 74.4
Potatoes 60 Potatoes 328.7 Barley 54.5
Cassava 42 Sugar beet 247.1 Sorghum 41.0
Sorghum 32 Cassava 176.5 Millet 37.1
Sweet Potatoes 29 Soybeans 161.3 Rapeseed 25.8
Millet 29 Sweet potatoes 138.7 Sunflower seed 21.1
Soybeans 17 Barley 133.1 Potatoes 20.1
Bananas 14 Oil palm fruit 120.4 Sugar cane 19.5
Coconuts 12 Tomatoes 108.9 Cassava 17.0
Apples 9 Watermelons 76.5 Oats 12.7
Tomatoes 8 Bananas 64.9 Coffee, green 10.8
Oranges 8 Grapes 64.8 Coconuts 10.6
Rye 7 Oranges 63.8 Chick peas 10.1
Yams 7 Apples 59.1 Oil palm fruit 10.0
Onions 7 Sorghum 55.8 Rye 9.8
Plantains 7 Coconuts 52.9 Sweet potatoes 9.7
Barley 7 Onions, dry 49.8 Olives 8.3
Other Notable New World Foods:
Cacao Beans 3 Eggplants 27.2 Cacao beans 7.6
Pineapples 2 Sunflower seed 26.5 Natural rubber 7.6
Chillies/peppers, green 20.9 Tobacco 4.2
Pineapples 15.1 Tomatoes 4.0
Source: The data are from the FAO’s ProdSTAT and Consumption Databases. See 〈〉.
Notes: All figures are for the year 2000. Bold type indicates a New World food crop. Italics indicate
an Old World crop for which more than 26 percent of current world production is in the New World
(26 percent is the fraction of arable land that is located in the New World). The table does not report
the consumption of oils. Among oils, the fourth most consumed oil, sunflower oil, is derived from
sunflowers, a New World crop.
The extent to which foods indigenous to the New World today comprise an
important portion of the world’s diet is illustrated by Table 1, which reports the
world’s most popular foods in 2000. The first list reports foods with popularity
measured by the average consumption of calories per person per day. Because this
measure may overstate the popularity of high-calorie food crops, we also provide
rankings based on production and land under cultivation. These are reported
in the second and third lists. Foods that are indigenous to the New World are
reported in bold text. From the table it is clear that today New World foods are an
important part of our diets. Although the two most consumed crops (by any of the
three measures) are Old World crops (either rice, wheat, or sugar), many of the
next-most-important crops are from the New World. Four New World crops that
7. Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian 169
make it into the top ten by two or more measures are maize, potatoes, cassava, and
sweet potatoes; tomatoes rank among the top 15 by two different measures. Also
high on the list are a number of additional New World foods such as chili peppers
and cacao, which despite not being consumed in large quantities, are of central
importance to the cuisines of many countries.
Staple Crops: Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Maize, and Cassava
The exchange introduced a wide range of new calorically rich staple crops to
the Old World—namely potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava. The primary
benefit of the New World staples was that they could be grown in Old World climates
that were unsuitable for the cultivation of Old World staples. Crosby (2003, p. 177)
writes: “The great advantage of the American food plants is that they make different
demands of soils, weather and cultivation than Old World crops, and are different in
the growing seasons in which they make these demands. In many cases the American
crops do not compete with Old World crops but complement them. The American
plants enable the farmer to produce food from soils that prior to 1492, were rated as
useless because of their sandiness, altitude, aridity, and other factors.”
This benefit of New World crops has resulted in their adoption in all parts
of the world. This is shown by Table 2, which reports the top consuming coun-
tries for different New World foods. The New World crop maize has been widely
adopted by a number of Old World countries including Lesotho, Malawi, and
Zambia. The average person in Lesotho consumes an astonishing 1,500 calories
per day from maize. Even more widely adopted than maize is cassava. The top
ten cassava-consuming countries are all from the Old World. Although both
foods do have their imperfections—for example, a diet of too much maize
causes pellagra and consumption of insufficiently processed cassava results in
konzo —they provide sustenance for millions of people around the world today.
The table also shows that sweet potatoes have been widely adopted in the Old
World and today are most heavily consumed in the Solomon Islands, Rwanda,
Burundi, Uganda, and China.
The New World crop that arguably had the largest impact on the Old World
is the potato. Because it provides an abundant supply of calories and nutrients,
the potato is able to sustain life better than any other food when consumed as the
sole article of diet (Davidson and Passmore, 1965, p. 285). Humans can actually
subsist healthily on a diet of potatoes, supplemented with only milk or butter, which
contain the two vitamins not provided by potatoes, vitamins A and D (Connell,
1962; Davidson and Passmore, 1965). This, in fact, was the typical Irish diet, which
although monotonous, was able to provide sufficient amounts of all vitamins and
nutrients (Connell, 1962). The potato was also adopted as a core staple in many
other parts of the World. As shown by Table 2, this nutritious crop has been so
widely embraced by Old World populations that today the top consumers of pota-
toes are all Old World countries.
Recently, two studies have attempted to estimate empirically the benefits that
arose from the introduction of the potato. Mokyr (1981) examines variation across
8. 170 Journal of Economic Perspectives
Table 2
Top Consuming Countries for Various New World Foods
(average calories per capita per day)
Maize Cassava Sweet Potatoes
Country Consumption Country Consumption Country Consumption
Lesotho 1,508 Congo, Dem. Rep. 925 Solomon Islands 457
Malawi 1,151 Congo 688 Rwanda 330
Mexico 1,093 Angola 668 Burundi 293
Zambia 1,058 Mozambique 650 Uganda 228
South Africa 924 Ghana 639 China 106
Zimbabwe 903 Benin 470 Timor-Leste 64
Guatemala 835 Liberia 451 Madagascar 59
Timor-Leste 808 Togo 393 Cuba 57
El Salvador 772 Madagascar 382 Tanzania 57
Kenya 766 Central African Rep. 374 Haiti 45
Potatoes Tomatoes Pineapples
Country Consumption Country Consumption Country Consumption
Belarus 320 Greece 68 Costa Rica 84
Latvia 258 Libya 47 Thailand 26
Estonia 255 United Arab Emirates 45 Kenya 20
Lithuania 248 Egypt 44 Philippines 14
Ukraine 248 Turkey 42 Samoa 11
Poland 242 Italy 38 Venezuela 10
Portugal 221 Lebanon 33 Antigua and Barbuda 8
United Kingdom 221 Tunisia 32 Australia 8
Russian Federation 217 Israel 29 Malaysia 8
Ireland 209 Cuba 26 Swaziland 8
Source: The data are from the FAO’s Consumption Database. See 〈〉.
Notes: The table reports average consumption per capita for the top ten countries consuming each New
World Crop. Bold text indicates consumption of Old World countries.
counties in Ireland and estimates that the cultivation of the potato did spur popu-
lation growth. In Nunn and Qian (2009), we also examine the effects of the potato
on population growth but do so for the entire Old World. Using a difference-in-
differences estimation strategy, we compare the pre- and post-adoption differences
in population growth of Old World countries that could adopt the potato with Old
World countries that could not. We find that the potato had a significant positive
impact on population growth, explaining 12 percent of the increase in average
population after the adoption of the potato. We also estimate the effect the potato
had on urbanization, a measure that is closely correlated with GDP. We find that
47 percent of the post-adoption increase in urbanization is explained by the potato.
We now turn to a discussion of crops that provide fewer calories, but are no less
important to Old World cuisines: capsicum peppers, tomatoes, cacao, and vanilla,
and two less healthy New World crops, coca and tobacco.
9. The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas 171
Capsicum Peppers
The capsicum pepper originated in the areas that today are Bolivia and
southern Brazil. By the arrival of the Europeans, the plant had migrated to
Mesoamerica and the Caribbean. Capsicum annuum,, which was domesticated in
Mesoamerica, is the ancestor to most of the peppers commonly consumed today:
the cayenne pepper, bell peppers, and the jalapeño pepper. A second variety,
Capsicum frutescens,, first cultivated in the Amazon basin, gives us the tabasco pepper
(Andrews, 1992, 82–83).
By 1493, capsicum peppers had arrived in Spain and Africa. They then reached
the East Indies by 1540 and India by 1542 (Andrews, 1993a, 1993b). In Hungary,
paprika, the spice made from grinding dried fruits of the capsicum pepper, is first
mentioned in 1569. Paprika has since been widely adopted in a variety of Hungarian
dishes, including goulash, and today is the country’s national spice (Halasz, 1963).
The capsicum has also had a significant impact on the cuisine of many other coun-
tries. In South and South East Asia, some form of pepper is used in the base of
almost every dish (for example, curries). In China, cuisine in the southwest (like
Sichuan, Guizhou, and Hunan) are defined by uses of certain chili peppers. In
Korea, a side dish of spicy kimchi is consumed with every meal.
Capsicums provide several health advantages. First, they are very nutritious. By
weight, they contain more vitamin A than any other food plant, and they are also
rich in Vitamin B. If eaten raw, capsicums provide more vitamin C than citrus fruits.
Capsicums also contain significant amounts of magnesium and iron (Andrews, 1992,
p. 285). Chilies, of course, are not eaten in vast quantities, but for populations with
traditional diets deficient in vitamins and minerals, even a small amount can be
important. Second, capsicums also aid digestion. Capsaicin, an alkaloid uniquely
found in capsicums, is an irritant to the oral and gastrointestinal membranes when
ingested (Viranuvatti, Kalayasiri, Chearani, and Plengvanit, 1972). This causes an
increase in the flow of saliva, which eases the passage of food through the mouth to
the stomach and increases gastric acids, which aid in the digestion of food (Solanke,
1973). If ingested in large quantities, this same alkaloid can cause oral burning,
which can be removed by casein (Henkin, 1991). (Since casein is most readily avail-
able from milk and yoghurt, it is not surprising that many spicy diets, such as those
from South Asia, pair chilies with milk and yoghurt.) Finally, capsaicin is now being
utilized in medicine to treat pain, respiratory disorders, shingles, toothache, and
arthritis (Rozin, 1990). Research into its various properties is ongoing.
Tomatoes are a fruit that originated in South America. Botanists believe that
approximately 1,000 years before the Spanish arrived in the Americas, an unidentified
wild ancestor of the tomato made its way north and came to be cultivated in South
and Central America (Smith, 1994, p. 17). The tomato is first mentioned in European
texts in 1544. Mathiolus described how tomatoes, pomi d’oro (golden apple), were
eaten in Italy with oil, salt, and pepper, suggesting that the first tomatoes in Europe
were yellow and not red (Gould, 1983, pp. 30–53). European cultivation became
10. 172 Journal of Economic Perspectives
widespread in the ensuing decades in Spain, Italy, and in France. The first documented
authentic recipe in Italy appeared in 1692 in an early Italian cookbook, Lo scalco alla
moderna,, by Antonio Latini. Tomatoes were brought to Asia by Spaniards who visited
the Philippines in 1564. However, in China, where they were regarded as foods of the
“southern barbarians,” they were not cultivated until the twentieth century (Anderson,
1988, p. 94). In North Africa, English travelers reported that Spanish tomates were culti-
vated in fields of North Barbary as early as 1671 (McCue, 1952, p. 330).
One of the difficulties in consuming tomatoes was that they did not preserve
well. Ripe tomatoes can become putrid within days in hot climates. The canning
process helped increase the shelf life of the tomato to several months, but prior to
1890, it was a costly manual process. The mechanization of canning at the turn of
the twentieth century significantly lowered the cost of this process and resulted in
a significant increase in tomato consumption (Gould, 1983, pp. 30–53).
Tomatoes have truly become a global food. As shown in Table 2, nine of the
top ten tomato-consuming countries are Old World countries. Greece consumes
the most tomatoes per capita, followed by other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern
countries. Italy, known for its use of tomato sauces with pasta and on pizza, ranks
sixth on the list. Table 3 lists the top ten producers of some New and Old World
foods. The top producers of tomatoes are listed in panel A of the table; eight of the
top ten producers are Old World countries, with only two New World countries,
Brazil and Mexico, breaking the list of top tomato producers.
Although not particularly rich in calories, tomatoes are an important source
of vitamins, particularly vitamins A and C. The tomato has been so thoroughly
adopted and integrated into Western diets that today it provides more nutrients
and vitamins than any other fruit or vegetable (Sokolov, 1993, p. 108). Medical
researchers have also recently discovered a number of additional health benefits
from tomato consumption. Recent research has found that lycopene, a powerful
antioxidant contained in cooked or canned tomatoes, has properties that may help
reduce cancer (for example, Basu and Imrhan, 2007). Although research is still in
progress, the American Cancer Society has already begun to promote increased
consumption of tomatoes as a potential method for cancer prevention.
The Codex Mendoza—an Aztec record of administration and description of
daily life, written approximately 20 years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico—
documents that by the time Cortes arrived, chocolate was being cultivated by
farmers in the Yucatan and was traded in large quantities throughout the Empire
(Prescott, 1843, p. 11; West, 1992, p. 108). Historical records indicate that Columbus
first brought back specimens of cacao pods to King Ferdinand I after his second
voyage to the New World. Outside of the Americas, cacao was first cultivated in 1590
by the Spanish off the coast of Africa on the island of Fernando Po (West, 1992,
pp. 110–111). At first, it was used in expensive chocolate drinks, mainly confined to
aristocratic courts. From Spain, it spread to Italy, and then to France via the royal
marriage of Philip III’s daughter, Ana of Austria, with Louis XIII. In England,
11. Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian 173
Samuel Pepys, the renowned seventeenth century diarist, records that chocolate
drinks changed from being novelty drinks to a regular luncheon beverage of the
middle class during his lifetime (McLeod, 2001).
The Spanish held a monopoly on production and trade of cacao up until the
seventeenth century when the French began cacao production in Martinique and
Saint Lucia. The Dutch also began production of cacao in Indonesia, which was
the Dutch East Indies at the time. Even today, as shown by Panel A of Table 3,
Indonesia remains one of the largest producers of cacao beans. Cacao cultivation
came late to mainland Africa, with Cameroon and Ghana being the first cultivators
in the late 1870s and 1880s (West, 1992, pp. 116–18). But today, the West African
countries of Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria are among the world’s
largest producers of cacao beans, with Cote d’Ivoire being the largest producer in
the world (again, see Panel A of Table 3).
While chocolate is most popularly consumed as a condiment, candy or dessert,
cacao is also a high energy food known for lifting psychological effects. Pure choco-
late, which is more than half cocoa butter, has a higher energy output per unit of
weight than most other carbohydrate- or protein-rich foods. This has made it an
important food for physically taxing expeditions where travelers needed to mini-
mize the food carried. For example, in Roald Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole,
his men were allocated 4,560 calories per day, of which over 1,000 came from cacao
(West, 1992, pp. 117–18).
Plain Vanilla
Vanilla was completely unknown to the Old World prior to 1492, but despite
having little nutritional importance, it has become so widespread and so common
that in English its name is used as an adjective to refer to anything that is “plain,
ordinary, or conventional.” Vanilla comes from the tropical forests of eastern and
southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. It is from the
fruit of Vanilla planifolia,, the only species of the orchid family that produces edible
fruit. Neither the vanilla flower nor its fruit, which takes the shape of a long pod,
naturally has any noticeable flavor or scent. Vanilla pods must be fermented to
produce the chemical compound vanillin, which gives the pods their distinctive
vanilla flavor and scent (Rain, 1992, p. 37).
It is unclear whether vanilla was first brought back to Spain by Cortes or another
Spanish traveler. In any case, it achieved popularity quickly in Spain, where factories
were using it to flavor chocolate by the second half of the sixteenth century. Like
chocolate, it was considered a luxury for the wealthy. King Phillip II was known to
have drunk vanilla-flavored chocolate as a nightcap. It was also quickly adopted by
aristocratic circles in other parts of Europe. Queen Elizabeth I of England was also
known to have been a frequent user of vanilla products (Rain, 1992, p. 40).
In the eighteenth century, the French began to use it widely as a flavoring for
confectionaries and ice, and also as a scent for perfumes and tobacco. French colo-
nial islands began to attempt to systematically cultivate cuttings of the plant taken
from the Americas. However, because of a lack of proper insects for pollination,
12. 174 Journal of Economic Perspectives
Table 3
Largest Producers of New and Old World Foods
(millions of tonnes unless otherwise indicated)
Panel A: Ten Largest Producers of New World Foods
Potatoes Chili Peppers, Dry Chili Peppers, Green
Country Production Country Production Country Production
China 66.32 India 0.98 China 9.44
Russia 33.98 China 0.21 Mexico 1.73
India 24.71 Pakistan 0.17 Turkey 1.48
Poland 24.23 Bangladesh 0.14 Spain 0.95
United States 23.30 Ethiopia 0.12 United States 0.91
Ukraine 19.84 Viet Nam 0.08 Indonesia 0.73
Germany 13.69 Peru 0.06 Nigeria 0.72
Belarus 8.72 Mexico 0.06 Egypt 0.43
Netherlands 8.23 Myanmar 0.05 South Korea 0.39
UK 6.64 Nigeria 0.05 Italy 0.36
Tomatoes Cacao Beans Tobacco
Country Production Country Production Country Production
China 22.32 Côte d’Ivoire 1.40 China 2.56
United States 11.56 Ghana 0.44 Brazil 0.58
Turkey 8.89 Indonesia 0.42 India 0.52
Italy 7.54 Nigeria 0.34 United States 0.48
India 7.43 Brazil 0.20 Zimbabwe 0.23
Egypt 6.79 Cameroon 0.12 Turkey 0.20
Spain 3.77 Ecuador 0.10 Indonesia 0.15
Iran 3.19 Malaysia 0.07 Greece 0.14
Brazil 2.98 Papua New Guinea 0.05 Italy 0.13
Mexico 2.67 Colombia 0.04 Argentina 0.11
Vanilla (1,000s tonnes) Natural Rubber Maize
Country Production Country Production Country Production
Indonesia 1.68 Thailand 2.38 United States 251.85
Madagascar 0.88 Indonesia 1.50 China 106.18
China 0.65 Malaysia 0.93 Brazil 31.88
Mexico 0.26 India 0.63 Mexico 17.56
Comoros 0.14 China 0.48 Argentina 16.78
Tonga 0.13 Viet Nam 0.29 France 16.02
Turkey 0.10 Côte d’Ivoire 0.12 India 12.04
Uganda 0.04 Nigeria 0.11 South Africa 11.43
French Polynesia 0.04 Liberia 0.11 Italy 10.14
Réunion 0.03 Brazil 0.09 Indonesia 9.68
initial attempts ended in failure (Bruman, 1948, pp. 371–72). It was not until after
1836, when Belgian botanist Charles Morren was able to hand-pollinate vanilla
orchids, that the French were successfully cultivating plants that flowered (Morren,
1838). As shown in Panel A of Table 3, the French colonial islands of Réunion and
13. The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas 175
Table 3 (continued)
Panel B: Ten Largest Producers of Old World Foods
Sugar Cane Coffee (Green) Soybeans
Country Production Country Production Country Production
Brazil 327.70 Brazil 1.90 United States 75.06
India 299.23 Viet Nam 0.80 Brazil 32.73
China 69.30 Colombia 0.64 Argentina 20.14
Thailand 54.05 Indonesia 0.55 China 15.41
Pakistan 46.33 Côte d’Ivoire 0.38 India 5.28
Mexico 44.10 Mexico 0.34 Paraguay 2.98
Australia 38.16 Guatemala 0.31 Canada 2.70
Cuba 36.40 India 0.29 Bolivia 1.20
Colombia 33.40 Ethiopia 0.23 Indonesia 1.02
United States 32.76 Honduras 0.19 Italy 0.90
Oranges Bananas
Country Production Country Production
Brazil 21.33 India 14.14
United States 11.79 Ecuador 6.48
Mexico 3.81 Brazil 5.66
India 2.67 China 5.14
Spain 2.62 Philippines 4.93
Italy 1.88 Indonesia 3.75
Iran 1.84 Costa Rica 2.18
Egypt 1.61 Mexico 1.86
Pakistan 1.33 Thailand 1.75
China 1.18 Colombia 1.61
Source: Data are from the FAO’s ProdSTAT Database.
Notes: The table reports the ten countries that are the largest producers of Old World and New World
food crops. Bold text indicates an Old World country producing a New World food crop, or a New
World country producing a Old World food crop. All production figures are in millions of tonnes for
the year 2000, except for Vanilla which are reported in thousands of tonnes.
French Polynesia and the former colonial island of Comoros continue to be large
suppliers of vanilla today. Mexico also continues to be a large producer of vanilla,
although its production is exceeded by Indonesia, Madagascar, and China.
It is believed that Native Americans began to use tobacco around the first
century BCE. There is no evidence that Native Americans ever consumed tobacco
recreationally. It was instead used as a hallucinogen during religious ceremonies
and as a painkiller. Ramon Pane, a monk who accompanied Columbus on his
second voyage, gave lengthy descriptions about the custom of smoking tobacco.
He described how natives inhaled smoke through a Y-shaped tube. The two ends
were placed in the nostrils and the third end over a pastille of burning leaves.
Although the exact manner of smoking differed between regions within the
14. 176 Journal of Economic Perspectives
Americas, the practice of smoking tobacco appears to have been universal (Penn,
1901, pp. 5–11).
Tobacco was quickly adopted by Europeans. At first tobacco was regarded
and consumed only as a medicine. In 1560, the French ambassador to Portugal,
Jean Nicot de Villemain (from whom the term “nicotine” originates), proclaimed
that tobacco had a panacea of medicinal properties. In 1561, Nicot sent tobacco
leaves to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France. She was so impressed with the
plant that she decreed that tobacco be called Herba Regina (the Queen’s Herb).
In England, tobacco was first introduced by Sir John Hawkins and his crew in the
1580s. It was chiefly used by sailors, including those employed by Sir Francis Drake.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, tobacco had spread to all parts of
Europe (Brooks, 1952, p. 16).
Besides being consumed, tobacco has also been used as currency at various
times. In 1619, the Virginia legislature rated high-quality tobacco at three shillings
per pound and in 1642 made it legal tender (Henry, 1894, p. 64; Scharf, 1879,
p. 220). In Maryland, nearly all business transactions, including debts, fines, and
fees, were conducted in terms of tobacco. For example, fees for marriage licenses
were paid in tobacco, and laws imposed fines measured in pounds of tobacco
(Scharf, 1879, pp. 37–38, 48). In 1776, during the American Revolutionary War, the
revolutionary government of America used tobacco as collateral for part of its loans
from France. Tobacco’s use as currency was not isolated to the American colonies.
In Japan, Buddhist monks used tobacco seeds as a method of payment along their
long pilgrimages (Brooks, 1952, p. 34).
In the twentieth century, tobacco consumption began to increase dramatically
around the time of World War I, when cigarettes were commonly called “soldier’s
smoke.” Beginning in the 1950s, medical researchers began to discover negative
health effects from smoking. In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General published a report
on the health consequences of smoking titled Smoking and Health (Cochran, Farber,
Frieser, Furth, Hickman, Le Maistre, Schuman, Seevers, Bayne-Jones, and Burdette,
1964). This report was an important stimulus for the extensive antismoking campaigns
that developed over the next four decades. Although smoking rates have declined in
developed countries, tobacco consumption continues to rise in many less-developed
countries (Jha, 1999, pp. 13–20). As an example, in China between 1992 and 1996
alone, per capita cigarette consumption increased by 50 percent, from 10 to 15 ciga-
rettes per day. According to the World Health Organization, tobacco is currently the
leading cause of preventable death (Mackay, Eriksen, and Shafey, 2006). It is estimated
that one in every ten adult deaths is due to tobacco consumption. Driven by the rising
rates of smoking in developing countries, this figure is expected to worsen to one in
every six adults within the next two decades (Jha, 1999, p. 22).
Coca leaves are grown from bushes native to the Andes. The leaves contain
alkaloids that can be extracted to produce commercial cocaine. The use of coca
leaves has a long history. During the Incan Empire, they were chewed during
15. Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian 177
religious rituals. Early Spanish settlers adopted this practice and brought it back
to Europe. Many notable figures, such as Sigmund Freud, became regular users
and active proponents of its ability to increase creativity and stamina, and decrease
hunger. Freud supposedly began using it after hearing of the Belgian army’s experi-
ments in giving coca extracts to its soldiers, who performed better on less food over
longer periods of time. The most famous legal use of coca is undoubtedly with the
soft drink Coca-Cola, which initially contained marinated coca leaves. The soft
drink was invented by Atlanta pharmacist Jon Pemberton as a stimulating beverage
that served as a substitute for alcohol at a time when the sale of alcohol was illegal
in Atlanta (Hobhouse, 2005, pp. 310–13).
Today, cocaine is one of the most highly traded illegal substances in the world.
Although the consumption of cocaine has spread to all corners of the globe, only
three New World countries—Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia—produce the world’s
supply of coca leaves. In 2008, Colombia produced 62 percent, Peru produced
28 percent, and Bolivia produced 10 percent of the world’s supply (U.N. Office on
Drugs and Crime, 2008, p. 70). The coca industry accounts for a significant portion
of income in these countries. It is estimated that the coca leaf by itself accounts
for 2.3 percent of Bolivia’s GDP, and 16 percent of its total agricultural produc-
tion (U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, 2008, p. 233). In Colombia, a country with
a much larger economy, the analogous numbers are smaller, but still significant:
0.5 and 5 percent (U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, 2009, p. 6).
Improved Cultivation of Old World Foods in the New World
After Columbus’ voyages to the Americas, it was soon discovered that certain
Old World crops were very well-suited to New World climates. In many cases, the
Old World crops were grown much more productively in the New World soils and
climates than they were grown back home. Table 1 indicates in italics Old World
crops that today have more than 26 percent of their total production in the New
World. We choose a 26 percent cut-off because this is the fraction of arable land
located in the Americas. Therefore, the table highlights Old World crops for which
a disproportionate share of output (normalized by arable land) is produced in the
New World. Because the Americas have 16 percent of the world’s population, on a
per capita basis as well, these foods are disproportionately produced in the Americas.
The fact that Old World crops flourished in the New World, and New World
crops flourished in the Old, is not just coincidence. It is, in part, the result of two
aspects of the Columbian Exchange. First, both the New World and the Old World
contain continents that lie on a North–South orientation and span nearly all degrees
of latitude. Because climates change most drastically as one moves North–South,
rather than East–West, this helped to ensure that New World plants could find an
Old World climate similar to their native climate and vice versa. Second, a benefit
also arose from the two regions being isolated for thousands of years. The isolation
caused separate evolutions of plants, parasites, and pests. Therefore, transplanted
16. 178 Journal of Economic Perspectives
crops often flourished because they were able to escape the pests and parasites
that had coevolved with them in their native habitat. Because of the greater preva-
lence of pests and parasites in tropical regions, tropical plants benefited most from
being transplanted (Dean, 1987, pp. 59–60). This benefit partially explains why
today 57 percent of the production of coffee (which originated in the Old World)
is produced in the New World, and why 98 percent of natural rubber is produced
in the Old World from transplanted rubber trees originally from the New World.
Numerous other examples of transplanted crops exist. For example, the Americas
currently produce 84 percent of the world’s soybeans, 65 percent of its oranges, and
35 percent of its bananas.
Sugar Cane
The most striking example of an Old World crop that could be much more
effectively cultivated in the New World is sugar cane. Most of the world’s land suit-
able for sugar cultivation lies in the Americas, particularly in Latin America and the
Caribbean. Sugar cane was first carried to the New World (from the Spanish Canary
Islands) on Columbus’ second voyage in 1493 and was first cultivated in Spanish
Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). By 1509, enslaved Africans were being
imported to the island, and by 1516, sugar was being exported to Europe. Soon after,
the Portuguese also brought sugar cane across the Atlantic, and by 1526, sugar was
being exported from Brazil to Lisbon (Mintz, 1985, pp. 32–33). Beginning in the
last two decades of the sixteenth century, the interests of the Dutch, English, and
French also turned to sugar production. Between 1630 and 1660, the Dutch, English,
and French began to found their own sugar colonies. The climate in the Americas
provided such an advantage to New World sugar producers that by 1680, sugar cane
production was dominated by the New World (Galloway, 2005, pp. 78–83).
One consequence of the large-scale production of sugar in the Americas was
that, for the first time in human history, there was a large enough supply of the
commodity that it could be consumed by the commoner in Europe. In England,
the annual per capita consumption of sugar increased by 20-fold between 1663 and
1775, and it increased a further five-fold between 1835 and 1935 (Sheridan, 1974,
p. 21, Burnett, 1966, p. 274). Sugar, providing a cheap and easy source of calories
for the growing urban working class in Europe, was first consumed in tea and other
hot drinks. During the nineteenth century, sugar consumption further increased
as processed foods—such as jams, cakes and biscuits, canned vegetables and fruits,
relishes, and white bread—became more common (Galloway, 2005, pp. 6–9).
It is hard to overstate the importance of sugar for the European masses. Hersh
and Voth (2009) estimate that the increase in sugar availability between 1600 and
1850 increased English welfare by an amazing 8 percent. Anthropologist Sidney
Mintz (1985, p. 180) even goes so far as to put forth a hypothesis about the impor-
tance of sugar for creating an industrial working class in the United Kingdom. He
writes that sugar, “by provisioning, sating—and, indeed, drugging—farm and
factory workers, sharply reduced the overall cost of creating and reproducing the
metropolitan proletariat.”
17. The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas 179
Today, as shown in Panel B of Table 3, Brazil is the world’s largest supplier
of sugar cane. Other New World countries that are also top producers include
Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, and the United States. Global production of sugar
cane in 2000 was 1,252 million tonnes. Of this, 45 percent was produced in the
Americas, with Latin America and the Caribbean accounting for 94 percent of
the New World production.
Indirect Consequences of the Columbian Exchange
Quinine: The New World’s “Gift” to Europe’s Old World Colonies
Quinine, an important medicinal “gift” from the New World, had significant
consequences for the relationship between Europe and its tropical Old World colo-
nies, particularly its African colonies. Quinine and related anti-malarial alkaloids
(quinidine, cinchonine, cinchonidine) are derived from the bark of cinchona
trees native to the Andes. The trees grow in scattered clumps in the eastern moun-
tainous forests of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia between 10 degrees north
and 20 degrees south at elevations between 800 to 3,400 meters (Brockway, 1979,
p. 108). Quinine was the first effective treatment of malaria caused by Plasmodium
falciparum,, the protozoan parasite that is transmitted between mammals by the
female Anopheles mosquito. Quinine works by inhibiting plasmodium reproduction.
The use of quinine as a prophylactic was first discovered in 1841 by Dr. Thomas
R. H. Thomson; the findings were later published in The Lancet (Thomson, 1846).
The British government, amidst the expansion of its empire into many malaria-
ridden regions, and seeing the potential benefits of quinine, encouraged the Royal
Society to research the properties of quinine and explore the possibilities of farming
it outside of the Andes. In 1858, the British Botanical Gardens (headed by Kew
Gardens, London) began the “cinchona transfer project” that aimed to ensure a
stable, adequate, and cost-effective quinine supply to the colonizers of the British
Empire by buying, stealing, bribing, and smuggling cinchona plants and seeds out
of the Andes to London and colonial gardens in Ceylon and India (Brockway, 1979,
pp. 115–17). The British were successful in transferring plants to Kew Gardens in
London, Calcutta, and the Nilgiri Hills of India. Within decades, production was
also expanded to Singapore and Dutch Java. Estimates suggest that by 1880, enough
was produced to supply ten million people with a daily dose (Hobhouse, 2005, p. 28).
The exact importance of quinine’s use as an anti-malarial alkaloid is still
being established by historians, but the evidence suggests that it was an important
“tool of empire” and significantly enhanced Europe’s ability to colonize tropical
regions of the globe. Although debated (for example, by Etemad, 2007), the tradi-
tional historiography recognizes quinine as having facilitated European survival
in malaria-ridden regions during the age of exploration and colonial expansion
(Headrick, 1981). The standard view is that Europe’s colonization of Africa would
have been virtually impossible without quinine. Curtin (1961, p. 110) notes that
“between 1819 to 1836 the average annual death rate per thousand mean strength
18. 180 Journal of Economic Perspectives
of European troops on the West African coast was 483 for enlisted men, and 209 for
officers. Between 1881 and 1897 the annual average death rate for officials was 76
in the Gold Coast and 53 in Lagos. . . . since there were no further medical reforms
between the 1850’s and the 1880’s comparable to quinine prophylaxis or the aboli-
tion of dangerous treatments, it is fair to assume that the medical reforms of the
1840’s reduced European mortality on shore by at least half and perhaps more.”
Curtin concludes that “the history of tropical Africa would certainly have been very
different if European mortality had continued at the old rate.”
Rubber in the Heart of Darkness
Natural rubber is made from latex, which is produced when certain plants are cut
or punctured. Although rubber can be made from many different plants from around
the world, the only commercially viable rubber plants are the Hevea rubber tree from
Central and South America, and a wild vine that grows in West-Central Africa.
Historically, Africans made little use of rubber, except as an adhesive to
fasten spearheads and arrowheads to their shafts (Loadman, 2005, p. 139). Native
Americans, on the other hand, had developed methods to prevent the latex from
decaying, which was accomplished by smoking the latex over fires to form spools of
usable crude rubber. The rubber was used to create a wide range of items that were
of central importance in their daily lives: hoods, boots, tents, balls, torches, jars,
containers, syringes, toys, breastplates, rubber-headed drum sticks, and adhesives
(Brockway, 1979, pp. 144–45).
Europeans did not recognize the benefits of rubber until 1770, when French
naturalist Charles Marie de La Condamine noticed its use by Amazon natives.
The first commercial use of rubber was in the production of shoes, primarily from
New England, in the early nineteenth century. However, the real boom for the
rubber industry did not occur until the process of “vulcanization” was discovered.
This process includes heating the rubber and combining it with other chemicals
to produce a more stable product with a wider range of uses (Hobhouse, 2003,
pp. 127–30).
Between 1851 and 1881 the world production of rubber increased from 2,500
to 20,000 tons annually (Hobhouse, 2003, p. 129). This boom, although signifi-
cant, was modest compared to what was to come. The following three decades
witnessed an explosion in the demand for rubber. Hobhouse (p. 130) describes
the rubber boom, which lasted from 1880 to 1910, writing that “rubber became
the most important, most market-sensitive, most sought-after new commodity in
the world.” The rising demand for rubber was first driven by the rise of electricity,
since rubber was used as an insulator. The demand was also fed by the need for
rubber to produce rubber tires for bicycles, and later for motorcycles and cars.
During this period, rubber production increased rapidly, doubling every
three to five years (Hobhouse, 2003, pp. 130–37). This was accomplished, in
part, by an increase in supply from tropical regions outside of the Americas. In
1876, 70,000 Hevea rubber tree seeds were taken from Amazonia to Kew Botan-
ical Gardens in Ceylon and Singapore by Sir Henry Wickham (Loadman, 2005,
19. Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian 181
pp. 81–107). This was the genesis of the rubber industry that now exists in all of
Asia. (The current domination of the rubber industry by Asian countries is evident
in Panel A of Table 3—the top six producers of natural rubber are all Asian coun-
tries.) A second supplier of rubber during the period, one which became the most
notorious example of European exploitation in sub-Saharan Africa, was the Congo
region of West Central Africa. Here grew the only other indigenous plants that
were able to provide commercially viable sources of natural rubber. Between 1900
and 1908, during the height of the boom, between 4,500 and 6,000 tons of rubber
were exported each year from the Congo Free State.
The atrocities and human costs that were suffered in the production of rubber
are well known and well documented (for example, Hothschild, 1998). In attempts
to force natives to gather rubber, villages were burnt, groups were massacred, and
hostages were taken, who were then typically starved and physically disfigured.
The population of the Congo is estimated to have been about 25 million prior the
rubber boom, in the 1880s. In 1911, after the peak of the boom, the population was
8.5 million, and in 1923 after the completion of the boom, it was 7.7 million. If one
compares the population losses relative to the production of rubber, an astonishing
conclusion is reached: an individual was “lost” from the Congo for every ten kilo-
grams of rubber exported (Loadman, 2005, pp. 140–41).
Forced and Voluntary Migrations to the Americas
Between the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, over twelve million Africans
were shipped to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade, the largest invol-
untary migration in human history (Lovejoy, 2000; Manning, 1990; Nunn, 2008b).
The trade was fueled by the high demand for labor in the Americas, which was
driven, at least in part, by two aspects of the Columbian Exchange: The first was the
spread of Old World diseases to Native Americans, which resulted in extremely low
population densities in the New World. The second was the cultivation of highly
prized Old World crops, such as sugar and coffee, which were particularly well-
suited to New World soils and climates.
The forced movement of African slaves to the Americas reached its height in
the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the flow of slaves slowed, first
as a result of the British Slave Trade Act of 1807 that banned imports of slaves
into British colonies, and later because of the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1837,
which abolished any use of slave labor within the British colonies.
In response to the abolition of the slave trade, many employers resorted to
bonded labor contracts as a way to obtain a continued supply of cheap labor. Most of
the migration occurred between Europe’s Old and New World colonies. Caribbean
plantations provided the main demand for laborers from French Indochina and
the British colonies in Asia. For example, over half a million indentured laborers
were moved from the Indian subcontinent to the British Caribbean during the
nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century (Williams, 1962,
p. 100). China, after its forced opening to the West upon losing the Opium Wars (in
1842 and 1860), provided another important source of indentured labor. Employers
20. 182 Journal of Economic Perspectives
of these “coolies” included guano pits, cotton and sugar industries in Peru, sugar
cane fields in Cuba (following the abolition of slavery in 1886), and railways in the
United States and British Columbia (Campbell, 1923).
Although most indentured laborers entered servitude voluntarily, many
parallels can be drawn between the harsh conditions of slavery and those faced
by the indentured laborers (Northrop, 1995, pp. 4–10). For example, many would
die on the voyage to the Americas, where crowded conditions and malnutrition
made the laborers vulnerable to disease (for example, Castro de Mendoza, 1989,
p. 45). And like slaves who were denied the rights of ordinary citizens, indentured
laborers were often denied the right to naturalize and obtain citizenship after their
contracts were over.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries also witnessed a dramatic increase in
voluntary migrations from the Old World. Between 1851 and 1924 alone, 45 million
people migrated from the Old World to the Americas, with the majority, 34 million,
choosing to migrate to the United States. Those that migrated to Latin America
primarily went to Argentina and Brazil. Between 1850 and 1940, 7 million went to
Argentina and 4.5 million to Brazil (Crosby, 2003, pp. 214–15).
A recent data construction effort by Putterman and Weil (2009) provides
comprehensive estimates of the magnitudes of post-1492 population flows from the
Old World to the New World. The authors construct a matrix showing the share
of a country’s current population (in 2000) whose ancestors were originally from
other countries of the world. Using this matrix, we are able to calculate, for the 27
New World countries in their sample, the share of their current populations origi-
nally from the Old World. These figures are reported in the first column of Table
4.3 The share ranges from 26 percent for Guatemala, to 100 percent for the New
World island economics of Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. In the second
and third columns of the table, we further disaggregate the Old World category,
reporting explicitly the population shares from Africa and from Europe. (The
remaining share, not reported, is for Asia and Oceania.) For many countries, most
of their current population is from either Africa (for example, 98 percent for Haiti)
or Europe (for example, 91 percent for Uruguay or 84 percent for Argentina).
Concluding Thoughts
The aim of this paper has been to provide a historical overview of the
Columbian Exchange, with a particular emphasis on aspects of the exchange
that have generally been neglected by economists. The New World provided soils
that were very suitable for the cultivation of a variety of Old World products,
like sugar and coffee. The increased supply lowered the prices of these products
For all of the fine details, including data sources and calculation procedures, see Putterman and
Weil (2009), as well as their online appendices, which are available at 〈
21. The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas 183
Table 4
Origins of New World Populations
Share of population in 2000 that is of:
Country Old World origin African origin European origin
Haiti 1.00 0.98 0.02
Jamaica 1.00 0.89 0.08
Trinidad and Tobago 1.00 0.46 0.07
Cuba 0.98 0.34 0.63
Canada 0.97 0.02 0.76
Dominican Republic 0.96 0.44 0.52
Uruguay 0.96 0.04 0.91
Guyana 0.95 0.39 0.00
Argentina 0.95 0.02 0.84
Brazil 0.91 0.16 0.19
United States 0.90 0.10 0.68
Puerto Rico 0.82 0.16 0.66
Costa Rica 0.70 0.09 0.60
Venezuela 0.69 0.14 0.55
Panama 0.64 0.13 0.45
Colombia 0.63 0.17 0.46
Chile 0.63 0.01 0.59
Belize 0.61 0.17 0.40
Nicaragua 0.60 0.09 0.51
Paraguay 0.54 0.01 0.52
El Salvador 0.50 0.00 0.50
Honduras 0.48 0.02 0.46
Ecuador 0.39 0.07 0.32
Mexico 0.38 0.07 0.30
Peru 0.36 0.06 0.28
Bolivia 0.28 0.01 0.27
Guatemala 0.26 0.04 0.22
Source: Data are from Louis Putterman and David Weil’s World Migration Matrix,
1500–2000 Version 1.1. 〈
Note: The table shows the proportion of the population of New World Countries
in 2000 that were descendents of individuals living in the Old World, Africa, and
Europe in 1500. See Putterman and Weil (2009) for full details.
significantly, making them affordable to the general population for the fi rst time
in history. The production of these products also resulted in large inflows of
profits back to Europe, which some have argued fueled the Industrial Revolu-
tion and the rise of Europe (Inikori, 2002; Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson,
2005). The Old World also gained access to new crops that were widely adopted.
Potatoes were embraced by the Irish and the eastern European societies, chili
peppers by the cultures of South and Southeast Asia, tomatoes by Italy and other
Mediterranean societies, and tobacco by all nations of the world.
The exchange also had some extremely negative impacts. Native American
populations were decimated by Old World diseases. This depopulation along
22. 184 Journal of Economic Perspectives
with the production of valuable Old World crops like sugar cane and coffee
then fueled the demand for labor that gave rise to the transatlantic slave trade.
The result was the forced movement of over twelve million slaves from Africa to
the Americas and devastating political, social, and economic consequences for
the African continent. Following the slave trade, the African continent was
divided and brought under European colonial rule, an event that some have
argued would have been impossible without the discovery of quinine in the New
World. Moreover, the knowledge of how to harvest and process rubber, learned
from natives of the Andes, had particularly regrettable consequences for those in
Africa’s Congo region.
Our hope is that this broad overview will spur further research examining the
neglected aspects of the exchange. One interesting question that is particularly rele-
vant for the exchange is the effect that diseases had on domestic institutions, social
structures, and development generally. The recent book by Mann (2005) argues that
the New World was much more politically, economically, and technologically devel-
oped than scholars have presumed, and one reason for this mischaracterization is the
large negative impacts Old World diseases had on New World societies.
The study by Hersh and Voth (2009) provides estimates of English welfare
gains from the increased supply of sugar and coffee that arose after the discovery
of New World virgin soils. Their study makes one wonder about the welfare gains
that arose from the introduction of various New World crops. For example, what
were the welfare gains from tomatoes in Italy, maize in Lesotho, chili peppers in
Asia, or cassava in West-Central Africa? Another interesting avenue of research
is to exploit the introduction of new food crops to examine the effects of agri-
cultural productivity and health on paths of development. Our fi ndings in Nunn
and Qian (2009) suggest that the improvement in agricultural productivity from
the introduction of potatoes had significant effects on historic population growth
and urbanization. This raises the natural question of whether the adoption of
potatoes brought any additional effects. For example, how did the introduction of
the new food crop affect health outcomes? Given the evidence that the introduc-
tion of potatoes eased population pressures and increased incomes, it is natural
to ask whether the adoption of potatoes had any effect on confl ict or warfare.
If so, how did this in turn affect state formation and subsequent institutional
These examples provide a small sample of the many questions that one could
investigate to further our understanding of the effects of the Columbian Exchange.
These questions lie in virgin soils, waiting to be explored.
■ We thank David Autor, Jonathan Hersh, Chad Jones, Timothy Taylor, and Joachim Voth for
valuable comments. We also thank Eva Ng for excellent research assistance.
23. Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian 185
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