When Alfred Crosby published The Columbian Exchange in 1972, his concise, catchy title quickly became part of the language.
And although much of Crosby’s book had more to do with disease than food, the idea that the encounter between the Old World and the New was a pivotal, perhaps the pivotal turning point in world food history became part of common wisdom.
I have two related reservations about that common wisdom. First, I think the exchange of plants and animals was part of a long standing historical pattern. And second, I suggest it was unusual in that the the way the new plants and animals on both sides of the Atlantic were used for food was strikingly inept compared to the historical pattern.
Today point one.
The early movements of plants and animals go back way before written history to at least the beginning of farming, quite probably way before that.
There was, for example, the massive spread of barley, wheat, sheep, goats, cattle and pigs, a package that by the first written records had been shunted from the Middle East to the Atlantic, northern China (most of the package), and northern India.
There were plantains (eating bananas) that managed to get from Southeast Asia to West Africa.
There was a package of taro and coconut, pigs and dogs that managed to get from Southeast Asia to Hawaii in the north Pacific.
Then there was the spread of alfalfa from Iran to China in one direction and Europe in the other. The massive expansion of rice from Southeast Asia to Persia to the Mediterranean. Of millets and sorghum all over the place. Of chicken from South East Asia across Afroeurasia. Of rabbits from North Africa to Scotland. Not to mention lots of fruits and vegetables, and sugar cane, one of the big .
Given this track record, the “Columbian Exchange” (interpreted as the movement of edible plants and animals) looks like more of the same rather than a radical break in our history.
Which gives me a chance to go on a bit about the word “reach” as in wheat, barley and sheep had “reached” northern China by the Shang Dynasty (say, 1000 BC). Given that in between eastern Turkey and northern China there is some of the most difficult and hostile territory on earth, “reach” seems to gloss over a good bit of human ingenuity and persistence.
Who chose those grains of barley and wheat? How far did they take them them? How many relays, how many generations did it take? or was it quick? And who grew and saved enough seed to have enough to make a viable crop? Who then disseminated it?
The point is that almost no one eats local food in the sense of food that is native to the place. Perhaps some people in the Fertile Crescent, or Southeast Asia, or central Mesoamerica. But most of us are the beneficiaries of millennia of acclimatization. As Auguste Hardy, the French scientist in change of the Algerian botanical garden in the nineteenth century put it “The whole of colonization is a vast deed of acclimatization.” And since humans have colonized the entire globe, they’ve done a massive job of acclimatization.