History books traditionally depict the pre-Columbus Americas as a pristine wilderness where small native villages lived in harmony with nature. But scientific evidence tells a very different story: When Columbus stepped ashore in 1492, millions of people were already living there. America wasn’t exactly a New World, but a very old one whose inhabitants had built a vast infrastructure of cities, orchards, canals and causeways.
NARRATOR: Summer 1492. After three months at sea, the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Nina anchor off the Bahamas. Europe has found the Americas. Next comes conquest and colonization by settlers, who remake America in their image. They advance… and destroy. But there is another story: about the animals and plants they bring here. And the natural treasures they find here. And how the Americas are completely transformed. lt all began 500 years ago.
It’s 1491. A year from now, Christopher Columbus will set foot on this quiet beach. What’s here before he arrives is a world of unbelievable natural wealth. Two vast continents teeming with life. More than 600,000 miles of coastline are surrounded by pristine waters, shoals so dense they’re said to slow the passage of ships. Countless species number in the tens of millions. Inland from the Atlantic shores, great forests stretch in every direction. This new world is a land of stark contrasts. From the lush jungles of South America, to the glaciers of the Arctic north and the great plains of the Midwest, where gigantic herds thunder across North America. There is room for caribou… antelope… bison… and the giant grizzly. ln the sky above, flocks of birds nearly block out the sun, as millions of pigeons, ducks, and geese cover the horizon. No one in Europe has dared imagine the magnificent bounty that exists on the other side of the Atlantic ocean.
In 1491 , Christopher Columbus stands on the coast of Spain looking west. He dreams of leading an expedition to find a new trade route to Asia. Success will mean glory and riches for himself and the Spanish monarchy.
In Europe, the nobles have grown wealthy by trading with the East. Spices and gold, gemstones and silk are the most lucrative goods. But Europeans have lost the Silk Road to the Turks, and foreign trade is in decline. The wealth of kings is in danger. Isabella, Queen of Spain, is desperate to find new routes to India. And she has a plan. Isabella is the most powerful woman in Europe, a continent of expanding horizons, filled with competitive and inventive souls. For 500 years they have been building castles, palaces, and centers of trade. Kings and popes have raised armies to fight each other and their enemies on Europe’s borders. Nowhere else are rivalries so intense, gold fever so widespread, religious fervor and business expertise as tightly wound as in Europe in 1491 . Ideas are moving forward. curiosity and the thirst for power pushes Europe’s limits. Europe is a busy and crowded continent trying to feed a growing population of 100 million people. Natural resources are already exploited as land becomes scarce and overworked. Most of the peasants are farmers working land that belongs to someone else… owned by the nobles or the church. Their main diet is bread and porridge, both made from harvesting grains. They plant rye or wheat in winter, oats or barley in the spring. And every third year, the field lies fallow to regenerate. They’ve learned to harness water and wind for power. It is hard work, but good for producing higher yields in smaller spaces. This agricultural revolution allows the European population to grow… …with the help of one more important element: domesticated animals. Horses pull plows. Cattle provide meat, fur and hides. The pig is a main source of meat and leather. And so, too, are sheep. And mules can pull a cart. Cows also give them milk, butter and cheese. lt is not only people that domesticate animals. The big five—horses, cattle, goats, pigs and sheep—domesticate the European landscape. They contribute to Europe’s overcrowded conditions.
In 1491, the Americas, too, are a crowded and prosperous place, but in a very different way. The Andes cradle a vast empire ruled by powerful god kings. Mesoamerica is densely populated and home to the most impressive civilizations on the continent. The Atlantic coast is filled with smaller villages and fields. And along the great rivers, great cities are built around monumental plazas. It is an ancient world, inhabited by 100 million people: hunters and gatherers, fishermen and farmers, kings, slaves and soldiers. Down among the trees, where the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers merge, lies one of the largest civilizations on the continent. The native Mississippians are mound builders occupying a vast region from the Great Lakes in the north to Florida in the south. The first explorers thought these great mounds were natural, carved by retreating glaciers. Now we know that they are the centerpieces of cities… cities like Cahokia. Busy trading posts of earth and wood with populations of up to thousands of people. No one knows what they called themselves or what language they spoke. But we know why they were successful. These Mississippians are farmers. Their staple crop is fuel for the ever-growing population. It is a plant native to the Americas, unknown to the rest of the world. But corn is not a blessing from nature or a gift of the gods. This crop is the outcome of man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Once they learned how to grow it, they could stay in one place. This simple diet translated straight into the energy to build a civilization. The cultivation of corn is a key to flourishing cultures in the Americas before Columbus.
ANDREW ISENBERG: The staple crop in North America was corn. 6,000 years ago ears of corn were only about as long as a person’s thumb, and they were barely edible. It took thousands of years to develop a more nourishing and larger hybrid, and also a hybrid that can grow in cooler climates outside of Mesoamerica. And it wasn’t until about 1 ,100 years ago that corn reached the Mississippi River valley.
NARRATOR: Corn is the result of the domestication of the wild teosinte grass. Early Americans started with this spindly stalk, and over the centuries they developed it into today’s giant cob. Archaeologists and biologists are still debating how corn was achieved out of a tiny grass. Corn is one of the keys to understanding American civilization. Wherever it flourishes, so do great cultures. Yet the greatest American empire of them all is found where corn cannot grow—high in the Andes.
The Inca Empire stretches nearly 2,500 miles down the west coast of South America. Inca build palaces, storehouses and castles in the tall mountains. In their realm of 6 million people, they rely on manpower to transport stones without animals or the wheel. And the energy for that is provided by another amazing food source. They are famed for their gold; but their true treasure is less glamorous.
A tuber native to the Americas and unknown in Europe. Cultivated here some 8,000 years ago in the region around Lake Titicaca in today’s Peru and Bolivia, 12,500 feet up. What is now a staple food in Europe was an American invention. By the year 1491, the Inca grow thousands of varieties, domesticated from wild ancestors, some poisonous, some even carnivorous. They preserve the tuber by mashing them into a substance called chuno. After harvest, potatoes are spread on straw and left out to freeze at night. During the day they are exposed to the sun. Trampling them eliminates water and allows them to dry. Chuno can be stored for 10 years, providing excellent insurance against possible crop failures. The Inca carve step-like terraces into the mountainsides to stop the soil eroding and create a flat surface for their crops. Terraces absorb more sunlight than steep slopes, so potatoes can grow at the highest altitudes. And all this is achieved by manpower alone, using wooden tools.
In North and South America in 1491, farmers grow corn and potatoes to feed their people. They have none of the domesticated animals that benefit Europe. For Inca farmers in the Andes, their chief source of meat and transporting goods is the llama. This is the biggest domestic mammal in the Americas. The llamas also offer dung for the soil and hides for clothes. But they can’t milk or ride them, and the animals can’t pull a plow. So they are no good for farming or for travel. But their wool is a true blessing. lt is warmer and lighter than sheep’s wool and produces a greater yield.
The second principal domesticated animal of the Americas is much smaller. For the Aztecs, the turkey is vital. Even today, for their descendents in Mexico and Guatemala, the turkey is so important that they dedicate two religious festivals to it. Native Americans have such few domesticated animals because the biggest native mammals in the Americas died out long ago.
ISENBERG: At the end of the last Ice Age, the megafauna in the Americas, the giant bison and the mastodons, went extinct, and the reasons for that are probably twofold. First of all, as the Ice Age was ending, the climate became much hotter and drier, and this killed the vegetation that these very large animals depended on. Secondly, the arrival of hunters into North America, crossed over the Bering Strait land bridge from Asia, coincided with the extinction of these animals, and very likely these hunters went after these large animals who were slow and had a lot of meat. what this left in North America were animals such as bison, deer and antelope that are not suited to domestication.
NARRATOR: In 1491, Native American tribes hunt wild animals to survive, but the village dwellers in the forests of the northeast and nomads on the plains develop methods to guarantee their meat supply. They can’t domesticate these animals, so they find a way of making their prey come to them. In the years before Columbus, Native Americans noticed that grass grows better after being burned by lightning strikes. So they start to burn the prairies and plains themselves. Many tribes use this technique, including the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Shoshone and the Blackfeet.
ISENBERG: America in 1492 was not a pristine wilderness; that’s a romantic myth. It was in many ways a managed landscape. Natives regularly burned the forests and the prairie in order to attract game.
NARRATOR: Not only does burning create lush grassland, it keeps the forest open and makes hunting easier. The new, rich pastures lure and increase the numbers of herbivores, as well as the predators that feed on them. They domesticate the land in order to attract wild animals. Nomadic central plain Indians are able to lure the biggest mammals in the Americas… the bison. Wherever they roam, bison are the main source of food and clothing and of tools made from their bones. But still the bison thrive. By 1491, North America is home to perhaps 30 million. They reign on the prairies, from Montana to Texas, pushed east by Native Americans along a path of fire, opening up the forest into virgin land. The bison gain a new habitat far beyond their original range. Native Americans have no guns or horses. They hunt on foot. They dress in hides to get as close as possible, and hunt with the bow and arrow or spears, all made of wood and leather, bone and stone. Hunting the bison is essential for their survival.
In Europe, hunting is no longer about survival. Noblemen hunt for sport, for pleasure and prestige. And only the nobles are allowed to hunt. If ever they catch a peasant hunting, he will be punished for poaching. Unlike in America, there’s no room here for an abundance of wildlife, for endless herds. In Europe the land is manmade; agriculture and cities push the wildlife back. Untamed land is now a rarity. But they have one other major food source. Fish have long been cheap and abundant for every social class in Europe. Christianity, the common religion all over Europe in 1491, approves of fish. Eating meat is banned on more than 100 days a year. The demand for fish is huge. But intensive agriculture is damaging the fish supplies. Once unlimited, supplies in Europe are dwindling fast. What happened to the fish stocks in Europe?
CALLUM ROBERTS: As people started to grow crops and cut back the wild woods, this released huge amounts of sediment into the water courses which changed them from being fast, clear-flowing rivers and streams into slow, turbid rivers and streams, and the freshwater fish found a problem with this, particularly migratory species that came up from the sea to spawn in rivers, animals like salmon and sturgeon. There was another factor which also cut down the supplies of these migratory fish, and that was that people started to build dams along rivers, and when that happened, the migration runs were blocked and the populations declined.
NARRATOR: When supplies of fish dwindle in their polluted lakes and rivers, they turn to the sea. For the first time they set up large scale sea fishing. They find abundance on a scale never seen before. And they exploit it. Cod and herring from the North Sea are the first to be fished. Every five years, catches double. By 1300, thousands of tons of dried fish are exported from Norway to Britain alone. But this is 1491. Europe’s rivers and lakes are now dirty and empty, and surrounding seas are fast becoming depleted.
In the Americas before Columbus, fishing is not an industry. They don’t need it; fish are for the taking. Their rivers are not used for power and are not affected by farming. Native Americans transport their fish far away from the coasts and waterways… …into the interior, high up into the mountains. The Inca, high in the Andes, enjoy fish from the Pacific. The Mississippians trade with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf coast to the south. They even eat fish and seafood from the Atlantic. Here, too, there is space for abundance. The waters teem with fish and with whales, dolphins and manatees.
Wherever Native Americans trawl their nets, they find a bounty of thousands of different species. Menhaden, channel catfish, and sheephead. They never have to take more than nature can replace. North and South America appear to be a primitive, untamed paradise. But looks can be deceiving. The greatest numbers of freshwater fish live in the Amazon, the largest river in the Americas and the most voluminous in the world. To our eyes, the Amazon rainforest is an almost untouched Garden of Eden. But it was once a very different place than what we know today. When the jungle was cleared in the twentieth century for agricultural purposes, people found the remains of a sophisticated civilization that once managed this landscape. In 1491, this area is home to thousands of people. They tend orchards with all kinds of fruits: papaya, mango, cocoa, nuts, and palms. They speak many different languages and live in many different social systems. Their tightly packed settlements cover an area of over 46,000 square miles. They are linked by raised causeways, bridges, and canals. Much of this is natural Savannah, created by annual flooding. But they have expanded the grasslands, regularly setting huge areas on fire. By 1491 , they have created an ecosystem of plant species adapted by fire that cannot exist in nature. Eventually the jungle will reclaim it.
Further north, in what is now New Mexico, another grand civilization has already come and gone. It flourished in a place that today looks like no humans could ever have lived there. The Chaco canyon. There is almost no vegetation, no water, and no animals to be seen. And it was already like this in 1491. But once this area looked completely different. This is the story of a civilization that developed as far as it could, used its resources as well as it could, and still declined. Chaco canyon was once covered with lush vegetation and forests of pine and juniper. The fertile area was home to the Anasazi. From the year 700 on, the Anasazi built the highest and largest buildings in North America. One is several stories high and has 600 rooms that overlook the majestic canyon. 1,000 people lived here. They had no animals to transport materials. Thousands of felled trees were dragged down to the chaco canyon on men’s bare backs. There is no written account of their lives or of their disappearance. But environmental historians can tell us what happened, by counting tree rings and analyzing rat nests.
Nathan English, of the university of Arizona, spends much time in the canyon looking for traces of the ancient nests.
NATHAN ENGLISH: Our interest in Chaco canyon is to learn more about how the ancestral Puebloans lived. And there’s a number of ways we can do that. we can do that through traditional archaeology where we dig up ruins and sites, or we can also look at what the environment was like around the ancestral Puebloans, and the way we do that is by looking at packrat middens, and each packrat midden is like a little snapshot in time of the area around the midden itself, so you could think of it like a picture, and the middens can be up to 40,000 years old in some places. And what the midden is, is the packrat makes a nest and it poops in that nest and then it only gets its water from eating plant vegetation, so its urine is very thick and viscous. That urine seeps into the pile of poop, essentially, and solidifies, almost like amber. In the meantime, the packrat is also collecting things like the plants around it, also pot shards, sometimes even corn or seeds of squash, and those macrofossils are incorporated into the midden, so we go out, we collect the midden, and then we examine the macrofossils in that midden to look at what the ecology around that midden was like at that time.
NARRATOR: Not only do rat middens hold information, trees do, too. Scientists count the rings of ancient logs to give the exact date when the very last tree was cut down. The Anasazi used juniper and pine for their timber and fire. Too much of it, some think. with the trees goes the soil; the forest cannot recover. Because of erosion, water drains down, creating gullies on the way. Irrigation and agriculture are no longer possible. This large population cannot feed itself anymore. But did they destroy the forests or did the forests leave them?
ENGLISH: We are on the edge of this pinon/juniper woodland, and it’s really possible that just natural climate change would have caused it to move back, but it’s also we know that the people were harvesting wood for fuel and for timber, and so it’s likely that a combination of the two things are what led to the loss of forest in this area.
NARRATOR: The year 1130 rolls around. It is one of the driest of years. The Anasazi have survived previous droughts, but the population has increased greatly. And there is no suitable territory to expand into. Without rain, it’s impossible to grow enough food to support the population. No agriculture means no culture. The Chaco canyon is abandoned. These ancient Americans cut down the last tree and move on.
Over in Europe in 1491 they are cutting down the forests rapidly. Their growing population needs more food and more space in which to grow it, and they badly need the wood. They have the tools… they have the means to transport it… and they have the energy. But they’re beginning to run out of space and time. Only wood can help them to move forward.
JOACHIM RADKAU: The Middle Ages were the era of wood. You find it wherever you look. Wood was the most important material for building, for making tools and furniture and for burning. It was the only fuel, there was hardly any coal.
NARRATOR: It is an era of competition, and wars use up forests, too. Whole armies are equipped with bows made from yew wood. The yew tree is almost exterminated in Europe. Armies need iron weapons, and smelting ovens burn day and night.
At the same time, whole forests are used to satisfy another European craving, for magnificent buildings. The cathedrals in the cities are made of stone, yet they require millions of logs for their bases and frames. Larches are needed for roof supports. Solid logs of oak, alder and elm are sunk into the ground to create foundations. Wood is indispensable for pillars and ceilings, posts and roof panels, ax handles and cart wheels. European castles, cathedrals, monasteries and churches consume entire forests in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and England.
RADKAU: No wonder that all the great social and economic struggles in the Middle Ages are fought in the forests, around the forests and about the forests.
NARRATOR: In this competition for timber, those who have money make the rules. And the money is now in the cities. Perhaps the richest city of all is Venice. It’s built on wood, literally. Piles sunk into the mud to create the platform on which the great stone facades can float. But behind all this is commerce and a great maritime republic. The goods that are bought and sold are transported in wooden galleons. Venice has denuded the forests all around them to build its fleet. The city’s demand is insatiable. And they start to deplete the Alps. Spruce for masts, larch for planking, elm for capstans, walnut for rudders and most importantly, oak for hulls. When that is not enough, they cut a swathe across Europe all the way to the Baltic. The Europeans have exploited their natural resources, leaving a continent where there are few fish in their rivers and less and less timber in their forests. Their towns are crowded with people, and they don’t know what to do with them.
Rivalries between princes and kings have grown intense. Religious fervor, curiosity and greed are widespread in 1491 . And there is a constant hunger for new ideas. The printing press is invented; books and ideas spread. But where do they go from here? Where can all this raw energy be channeled? This is the time when European kings and queens send explorers beyond the horizon to expand and enhance their power. Some explorers go around Africa to find the sea route to India.
One has the vision to sail west to arrive in the East. He is a seaman from Genoa, Italy, a fervent amateur who has the crazy idea of sailing into the unknown to reach India. Christopher Columbus has spent five years trying to gain royal support to finance his voyage. Isabella, Queen of Spain, finally agrees. what does the Spanish crown have to lose? It doesn’t cost much to finance three ships. Spain has so much to gain from a shortcut to India: treasures, trade and land. At first, no one wants to board his ship. Finally he drags together a motley crew of 87 men. Many are illiterates, petty criminals, even murderers, who choose probable death at sea in preference to the gallows. Many are soldiers with nothing to do since Spain expelled the Moors just months before. Now, they are soldiers of fortune. With his band of desperados, Christopher Columbus sets sail from the port of Seville. It is the summer of 1492. He promises the Queen that his expedition will be a success, and in a matter of weeks he will change the course of history.
NARRATOR: It is October 12, 1492, when Columbus sights land. ”l saw neither sheep nor goats nor any other beast. All the trees were as different from ours as day from night, and so the herbage, the rocks, and all things.” Three Spanish ships sail west for three months in search of India. Then finally they arrive– 87 men, among them conquistadors, pig farmers, murderers. But this is not Asia; it is an island in the Caribbean. They have no idea that they have come to a new world. The air is hot, the water is warm. They have survived the voyage and have found land for the Spanish crown and in the name of God. They are exhausted, tired but thankful. What land is this? Where are the ports, the cities, the ships and traders they expected? The natives have seen many people arrive from the sea. Other tribes, but no one like this. They will both soon discover that this is just the beginning. Columbus and his men stay for three months in the Bahamas and have no idea that they’re on the edge of two great continents… …about ten times bigger than Europe. From the tropical seas to the arid deserts. It is vast. And there is space, with room for every possible landscape. Stretching from the northernmost to almost the southernmost points of the globe.
Spain’s royal monarchy made Columbus’ voyage possible. [knocking] It is 1493, and they’ve waited eagerly for seven months to learn of his discoveries. Upon his return he delivers the news in a report to Queen Isabella. In a few pages, Columbus describes the paradise he has found in her name. Land to conquer, converts for Christianity, riches to exploit. And gold. In Europe no news stays local for long– traders, armies and pilgrims carry news across the continent in weeks. Columbus’ letter is translated, copied, and becomes a bestseller. Now many Europeans are aching for their share of the treasures. A few months later, in Spain, men are moving towards the ports of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Men who have no land and no work. They cross the barren Spanish regions that offer little to live off. Desperados with nothing to lose. Men in need of a job. And the Queen needs them. Anyone can come along. Anyone can be a conquistador. Even a pig farmer can win glory and riches in faraway lands. In 1493, 17 ships arrive in the New world, on an island in the Caribbean Sea, carrying 1,200 Spaniards. Columbus’ second voyage begins a stampede of Spanish exploration and conquest. Some will go south, some to the Andes, some along the Mississippi. It is the conquest of the Americas. Driven by greed, carrying weapons, and with one animal that does not exist on this continent. With the horse the Spanish are able to annihilate whole empires in just a few decades. within 40 years the Inca in the Andes fall to Pizarro. And the Aztecs in central America to Cortez. Where there were towns and cities inhabited by millions of people… the Spaniards leave only ruins… …and no one to manage the land. Spanish explorers invade the Americas and bring with them the horse. First brought to the Caribbean islands, these animals reproduce and spread in the New world as fast as the wind. Horses have not been seen here since the Ice Age. Now they’re back. It’s as though the landscape has been waiting for them. Once ashore, a few horses run wild. A new breed evolves, which soon takes over North America: the mustang. Within 300 years, they have reached the central plains and the Rocky Mountains. At the end of the 18th century, the mustang makes it as far as Canada. 150 years later, there may be 7 million wild horses in North America.
For the nomadic tribes like the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Sioux, and Comanche in the central plains, these wild horses are a blessing. What they used to do on foot—fighting, hunting, traveling—they can now do on the backs of wild horses from Europe. It transforms their lives. This Old world animal becomes a symbol of their native culture. Although the horse once came from across the Atlantic, it is now an image of nomadic America. As soon as the conquistadors have conquered South and central America, one of them heads north.
Hernando de Soto travels from Florida, up the Mississippi River… looking for gold. The Spaniards leave death in their wake, and something else they bring along to keep them alive. As they journey through unknown jungles, the pigs help them survive. They are a perfect source of food. They don’t take up much space in the boats. They look after themselves, and they eat everything they can in this new continent. They’re prolific little beasts. A healthy sow can give birth to ten piglets at a time. When the conquistadors leave some behind, they will have an ever-growing food supply for those who come after them. The pigs are key to their survival. But to Native Americans, they’re a curse. In North America, natives do not fence their fields, and their staple crop of corn is irresistible. There is no evidence that Native Americans know how to fight this plague of pigs. Soon European swine are eating the seeds and young shoots. Only a few generations after running wild, the animal becomes very different from the typical farm pig. It grows tusks, and gets bigger and aggressive. What began with a few pigs becomes a daily nightmare for the Native Americans. In addition to horses, Columbus brought eight pigs to America on his second voyage. Within 20 years, there are 30,000 pigs on the island of Cuba alone. They multiply, conquering the Andes, the Amazon, and North America.
But the Spaniard, his horse and his pig would never have been so successful in the conquest of the New world without a hidden passenger. It is when the Old and New worlds touch that the Native American meets his worst enemy, a very black dose for the continent. A Spanish missionary reports, ”An epidemic broke out, a sickness of pustules, large bumps spread on people. Some were entirely covered on the face, the head, the chest. They lay in their dwellings and sleeping places, no longer able to move or stir. The pustules caused great desolation; very many people died of them and many starved to death. No one took care of others any longer.” Deadly diseases contaminate both continents of the Americas. ”For the natives,” writes a chronicler, ”they are near all dead of the smallpox, so the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.” To this day, scientists are still working to identify these diseases, to trace their paths, and count the dead.
ISENBERG: Smallpox was accidentally introduced to the Americas in the 16th century. The smallpox virus is very hardy. In blankets that are used by smallpox victims, the scabs can live for weeks carrying the virus, and smallpox can also pass from host to host onboard a transatlantic vessel until it reaches the Americas. And of course once smallpox reached the Americas, it was introduced to millions of new hosts, human hosts, who had no acquired immunities to these diseases. And so smallpox, together with measles and influenza, had a devastating impact on Native American populations. No one knows exactly what the mortality was. conservative estimates are about 50%. It was probably closer to 90% or even higher.
NARRATOR: Through trade between native peoples, diseases spread through the whole continent. Many natives die of foreign diseases without ever seeing a European. Microbes move faster than the conquistadors who brought them. Some 50 years after Columbus first sets foot in the Americas, conquistadors and explorers find neither towns nor people. No one stands in their way. Most of the people are dead. And nature reclaims the land. Everything that they now find is pure wilderness, a Garden of Eden, without humans. ”A thousand different kinds of birds and beasts of the forest, which have never been known, neither in shape nor name; and whereof there is no mention made, neither among the Latins nor Greeks, nor any other nations of the world,” reports a Spanish missionary. ”It may be God hath made a new creation of beast.”
Explorers send exotic plants and animals, evidence of God’s second creation, on the ships back to Spain. Corn, chili and pumpkins… …domesticated in the New world, unknown in Europe. Tomatoes and potatoes.
But there is an unwelcome passenger on board. An unintentional gift from the natives. It will lead to death in Europe. It will spread in the brothels in the ports and cities of the Old world. It will be painful; it drives its victims mad. And it can take a long, long time to kill. This is the French pox or the Spanish sickness– syphilis. Europeans have no idea that this disease came from America, where more and more are aching to go.
In the 17th century a new wave of people heads to the New world–the settlers. England has defeated Spain to become a new European superpower. The English crown sets out to claim its share. In 1607, the British start a colony on the east coast of North America, in what is now Virginia. They name it Jamestown, after their king. This will become their new world. Their job is to make money for the British trading companies that sent them here. The land they seize seems to be the right place to exploit. Forests and rivers, coasts and lakes, owned by no one. But not all Native Americans succumb to European diseases. And this land is neither empty nor uninhabited. It is the land of the Powhatan. More than 14,000 people living in small communities. Around 200 villages on the coast and along rivers, in large houses surrounded by cleared forests and mixed fields of squash, beans and corn. These are farmers and hunters. There is no gold, no silver that settlers dream of. Just the land and its people. For a while, the settlers and the natives manage to coexist. This land is rich with resources that Europe lacks. In the long run, resources that are far more valuable than gold and silver. And there’s more than enough for everyone. Europeans wanted to travel west to the great empires of Asia. Instead, the New world they find amazes them with its natural abundance.
ROBERTS: They discovered almost miraculous, unbelievable quantities of fish in these estuaries and rivers. One particular kind of fish which very much impressed settlers was the river Herring, or Alewife, as it’s otherwise called, and seasonally these would ascend the rivers to spawn from the sea in their millions. For example, in the Potomac River near Washington, Dc, during the 18th century, something like 750 million alewife were caught just from that one river in one year! lt was a remarkable abundance and people described the rivers as having more fish than water.
NARRATOR: Whole shoals are caught in the settlers’ nets. In the 18th century, hundreds of thousands of tons of cod are shipped in one single year, sent from North America to England, Portugal, and Spain. Fishing boats sink under the weight of their catches, and the colonies thrive. It takes only 200 years to achieve what had taken a thousand years in Europe: overfishing.
ROBERTS: Fishing tends to remove the biggest, oldest individuals from a population, and by doing this, it changes the selective pressures on the population so that fish begin to grow more slowly, they reach reproductive maturity at a smaller size and earlier in life, and these things all reduce the productivity of a population.
NARRATOR: Fish are salted, packed and sent home for money. Along with them, the settlers send another resource that the Old world is desperate for. It is said that ”there are trees as far as the eye can see, such that a squirrel starting off at the Atlantic coast need never touch the ground till he got to Georgia.” This is so different from the Europe they left behind. They have finally found a replacement for something that is disappearing at home. An infinite, accessible source of the raw material of the age. The forests must fall if the settlers are to succeed. From now on, the trees are doomed.
RADKAU: When the first settlers arrived in the New world, they found forests like they had never seen in Europe, endless forests with huge trees. Penetrating into the heart of the land was also a war against the forest. The axe became the Yankee emblem. At the same time, forests were the great resource the land had to offer. You could make plenty of money exporting timber. In Europe, wood had become expensive. And so the greatest forest destruction in history now took place.
NARRATOR: The clearing of forests that seem to belong to no one and cost nothing goes so far that by the late 17th century many areas of the Caribbean and Atlantic islands are completely bald. ”An incredible amount of wood is really squandered in this country for fuel: day and night all winter; for nearly half a year in all rooms, a fire is kept going,” observes a European traveler. Wood consumption in the forests of New England, just like in Europe, is out of control. For fuel, for building, and to clear agricultural land. The resources in this vast continent seem to be inexhaustible. But in time, fish stocks will dwindle in the Americas, too. They create this New world in the image of the one they left.
Europeans change America by what they take away, but they change this continent even more by what they bring with them. They come in search of their own land, something almost impossible to find in Europe. They come in search of religious freedom, in search of a better life. They believe they are responsible for their own success and happiness. For the first time, women settlers come, too, and they bring a whole way of life with them. They bring animals and plants that are all new to the American continent. Livestock and grains from Europe will transform the New world and make of it a true New England. with the newly imported plow, they will leave little land untilled. These domesticated livestock and metal tools have never been seen on this continent. An environmental revolution takes place. In no time, their European wheat is growing in this foreign soil. Wheat, barley, oats and rye are brought to America; but in the process some less welcome guests hitch a ride.
ISENBERG: Europeans introduced crops such as wheat to the Americas, but in the bags of seed that they brought with them to the Americas, they also brought along seeds for weeds, dandelions, other kind of weeds, and these are everywhere in the Americas now.
NARRATOR: From the most insignificant weed to the continent’s greatest mammal, the bison, nothing is untouched. America’s native flora and fauna is forever changed. Where the bison once reigned, cattle soon roam. To the settlers’ delight, their livestock multiplies more quickly here than it did in Europe. In a few hundred years, European cows eat away the American grass and trample the soil, deposit their excrement and distribute the seeds of the weeds. The invasion of European insects and animals changes the American landscape forever. Horses, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and huge herds of cattle take over North and South America. The cattle alone double in numbers every 15 months and feed the settlers.
The New world settlers defend themselves inside sturdy forts. But there are no shortages of any kind. Meat has become one of the cheapest foods in the Americas. They are the best-fed people in the world. Hides are in great demand, in America as well as in Europe. And fur from the wild animals they shoot brings in a steady export income. Some, like the beaver, are hunted almost to extinction. Settlers are not forced to adapt to the landscape; they domesticate and dominate it. Most trees were cut down and turned into pasture and gardens where all kinds of vegetables and root crops that we know in England grow in profusion. They replace the trees they have cut down with their own trees. Europeans bring peaches, pears, and plums. They bring figs, olives and bananas. And their trees flourish. They never know how lucky they are. Because the settlers also bring bees with them for their honey. The native American bee pollinates only a few species, but European honeybees can live almost everywhere and pollinate any plant in sight. Gardens turn into plantations, for consumption at home and abroad. Apples thrive and become a major industry in North America, eventually yielding a harvest of 5 million tons a year. All beginning with European seedlings.
This is biological imperialism in full swing. Europe’s fruits and vegetables conquer the New world. But it is also an exchange. It is the Columbian Exchange. European kitchens may not see native meat from America: bison or llama. But New world vegetables make a big impact. The plant with the greatest impact on Europe needs a couple of centuries to take root in its culture. ”This tuber is insipid and mealy. It cannot be classed among the agreeable foodstuffs. But it furnishes abundant and rather wholesome nutrition to men who are content to be nourished. It is justly regarded as flatulent, but what are winds to the vigorous organs of peasants and laborers?” wrote Diderot in his Encyclopedia in the 18th century. Introduced into Spain, potatoes slowly spread to Italy and to Northern and Eastern Europe. By 1600, the potato has entered Austria, Holland, France, Switzerland, England, and Germany. Frederick the Great himself urges its cultivation in Prussia. But it is the Irish who adopt the potato with open arms. They have a limited food supply, and grain grown here has often been destroyed or burned as the result of war. But the potato, safely underground, survives these hardships. In 100 years, the Irish population more than doubles. And towns like Berlin grow into great cities. By 1700, there is an unprecedented population explosion in Europe, thanks to a plant from the faraway Andes. Only one domestic animal from the New world sets foot in Europe: the turkey. Turkey and a few vegetables enhance the European diet, but otherwise their life is relatively unchanged.
ISENBERG: So why was the columbian Exchange so one-sided, why did it go primarily in one direction, from Europe to America, with the exception of things like potatoes and potato blight? Why was Europe not overtaken by American plants and animals? It’s difficult to say why something did not happen, but you have to remember that the ecological invasion was a cooperative enterprise– disease, and plants and animals working together. And Europe remained densely populated. It didn’t have diseases depopulate its people. And so you didn’t have niches open up for livestock to graze, and then weeds to take over the areas that livestock had overgrazed and trampled. So without that critical part, it worked in one direction primarily.
NARRATOR: The European elite want more than just turkeys and potatoes from the New world. They want luxury products. Sugar and tobacco meet the requirements of the upper class. The first British settlers quickly acquire a taste for American tobacco and export large shipments to Europe. To satisfy such high demand, settlers build immense plantations. Growing sugar becomes a business on the same scale as tobacco. The new monocultures cover entire landscapes. For this sole purpose, some 10 million Africans are transported to America, enslaved to cultivate luxury items for Americans and Europeans.
ISENBERG: Because of the rapid depopulation of the Americas owing to disease, Europeans faced a shortage of labor in their effort to exploit the resources in the New world, particularly to exploit the soil. So the Europeans, first the Portuguese, and then the Dutch and then eventually the English imported slaves from west Africa to cultivate sugar in the Caribbean and Brazil, tobacco in Virginia, rice in South Carolina and by the 19th century in mainland North America, cotton. It’s no exaggeration to say that these cash commodities produced by slave labor were essential to the export economies of the Americas.
NARRATOR: By the 18th century, the metamorphosis of much of America is complete. New Spain and New England are fully established. Nature has been transformed and is in the hands of man. Now pioneers are heading west. There is still empty land in that direction. They will complete what was begun in the East. In the creation of the New world, perhaps 90% of the Native American people died. The people who took their place came from all over Europe, as conquistadors, settlers, explorers, and colonists. And they came from Africa as slaves. But it was the transfer of animals and plants from Europe to the Americas that really made the creation of the New world possible. In today’s chrome and steel cities, we sometimes seem so cut off from nature that it may be difficult to believe the Columbian Exchange ever happened. But in the final analysis, the skyscrapers and the melting pot of the races owe their existence not only to humans but also to the natural world.
ISENBERG: People came to the Americas for many reasons. Some came to make money, some came for religious freedom, some came involuntarily as slaves, but those populations took hold in the Americas because of the accident of ecology, because of microbes, the plants, the animals that they brought with them that gave them an advantage over the people who are already here. And the legacy of the columbian Exchange is also still largely biological, and that legacy will continue into the future.
NARRATOR: It all began 500 years ago. Columbus had a vision. And three ships set out in a quest for India… and found the New world.