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Early Cultural Interaction, Cultural Interaction: The Columbian Exchange

African diseases, plantation agriculture, African slave trade, new lands, biggest killer

What was to become American history began in a biological and cultural collision of Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Europeans initiated this contact and often dictated its terms. For Native Americans and Africans, American history began in disaster.

Native Americans suffered heavily because of their isolation from the rest of the world. Europe, Africa, and Asia had been trading knowledge and technologies for centuries. Societies on all three continents had learned to use iron and kept herds of domestic animals. Europeans had acquired gunpowder, paper, and navigational equipment from the Chinese. Native Americans, on the other hand, had none of these. They were often helpless against European conquerors with horses, firearms, and—especially—armor and weapons.

The most disastrous consequence of the long-term isolation of the Americas was biological. Asians, Africans, and Europeans had been exposed to one another’s diseases for millennia; by 1500 they had developed an Old World immune system that partially protected them from most diseases. On average, Native Americans were bigger and healthier than the Europeans who first encountered them. But they were helpless against European and African diseases. Smallpox was the biggest killer, but illnesses such as measles and influenza also killed millions of people. The indigenous population of Mexico, for example, was more than 17 million when Cortes landed in 1519. By 1630 it had dropped to 750,000, largely as a result of disease. Scholars estimate that on average the population of a Native American people dropped 90 percent in the first century of contact. The worst wave of epidemics in human history cleared the way for European conquest.

Europeans used the new lands as sources of precious metals and plantation agriculture. Both were complex operations that required labor in large, closely supervised groups. Attempts to enslave indigenous peoples failed, and attempts to force them into other forms of bound labor were slightly more successful but also failed because workers died of disease. Europeans turned to the African slave trade as a source of labor for the Americas. During the colonial periods of North and South America and the Caribbean, far more Africans than Europeans came to the New World. The slave trade brought wealth to some Europeans and some Africans, but the growth of the slave trade disrupted African political systems, turned slave raiding into full–scale war, and robbed many African societies of their young men. The European success story in the Americas was achieved at horrendous expense for the millions of Native Americans who died and for the millions of Africans who were enslaved.

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