Sitting here thinking about the garden I helped tend for the last three years I cannot help but wonder what the gardens of Europeans and Native Americans would have looked like prior to 1492 when Columbus ran into the Americas. Not terrible long ago I was reminded of a nugget of history, probably covered in some middle school history class that did not follow me through my years. That little nugget is what is called by historians The Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange, named after Christopher Columbus, the man most credited with the discovery of the Americas, is the exchange of plants, animals, diseases and human slaves between the Americas and the Old World – Europe, Asia, and Africa. What sparked this flame of inquiry was a documentary I watched called More Than Honey where it was stated that honeybees were brought from the Old World to the Americas by Europeans. And this notion, that before 1942 there were no honeybees on this entire continent floored me. I wondered “how could this be” and then quickly “what else did the white man bring over the Atlantic?” After digging a little deeper my entire worldview exploded when I found out that tomatoes and potatoes are native to the Americas and did not exist anywhere else in the world before the globalization caused by the Columbian Exchange. “Wait, there were no tomatoes in Italy?!” and “How did this food migration start?” I thought… and “What changes have occurred in society and culture as a result of food migration?”
As things go, I found that the Columbian Exchange is more or less still happening today. For us it has been re-branded as Globalization and continues to be responsible for world trade of everything from food to cars to raw materials to clothing and the list goes on infinitely as manufacturing and technology increase. Just as it has a presence today and into the future the Columbian Exchange also has its own past – and that is the spice trade
The Spice Trade began by most estimates around 4000 years ago (Britannica Academic 2016) and included “historical civilizations in Asia, Northeast Africa, and Europe” (Wikipedia n.d.). This exchange often is thought of as the exchange of spices, the tasty things we put on our food, but in reality encompassed much more than just spices. It is also important to consider here that the line between food, cosmetics, and medicine was much finer 4000 years ago than it is today. As the Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages describes in Spices and the Spice Trade “In medieval Europe ‘spices’ meant aromatic products of high value imported from far away.” and “Culinary condiments, incense, medicines, perfumes, and cosmetic products were all considered spices.” (Bjork)
When thinking about this I try to put myself into a mindset to create a context for how this was all taking place. Consider that you have been traveling for months across a continent. The hardship of travel, the wear, and tear of the “road”, sleeping under stars with small fires to cook food, encounters with animals, storms tearing across the landscape. Then arriving at a destination, tired, hungry, with a mind full of thoughts from a culture hundreds or thousands of miles away and now surrounded by an entirely new people. Your welcomed to sit down and enjoy food together because “eating is definitely one of the more social behaviors of Homo sapiens… and it's a good way to see the interaction between cultural evolution and biological function.” (Britannica Academic 2016) While this meal takes place ideas are shared across the table. Ideas about the cuisine of course but also about medicine, religion, politics, mathematics, science, art, music, philosophy and so on. Think about the great conversations you have had around a dinner table with great company and it is not a large jump to see that happening around a table with roman wine coming from the west to meet pepper coming from the east.
When thinking about spices in this way we can start to consider that there was much more at trade here than tasty treats. Historical peoples on the spice routes were not sharing and trading just in food, they were trading in ideas. These ideas related to food and otherwise have had a profound impact on the world today. There is a fantastic documentary about India called The Story of India: Spice Routes and Silk Roads talking about this cultural evolution and discussing the many things trade along these routes beyond commodities.
“the ancient Greeks called this city "Mathura Ton Theon," the city of the gods. if you'd been here in the second century A.D. at the height of the Kushan empire, you would have seen Greeks, Romans, Bahtrians, Persians, maybe even the odd Chinese. all the result of the opening up of the silk route and the contacts between the Mediterranean world, and India and china. it was an incredibly exciting time and this city was at the center of it. Dynamic economy, very diverse ethnically, in its religious life, just the place to be-- and that explains why you have such tremendous achievements in ideas and in art here.
A great historian of the roman empire, Edward Gibbons, said this period, second century A.D., was the happiest time for humanity in the whole history of the world. Like the Moghuls and the British, the Kushan’s were outsiders, a foreign military elite ruling the people of India. but by encouraging long-distance trade and religious tolerance, the Kushan’s brought peace to a vast area for more than two centuries. and with this peace, they could foster the arts, literature, and science. they were behind the development of Sanskrit as a language of international scholarship in the east, like medieval Latin in the west. and another important area of their patronage was medicine.”
Taking this context for the trade of commodities as well as ideas we can begin to move past the spice trade to the next major player in the history, the Columbian Exchange. As things go in our world a major driving force was also money. For those merchants who were involved in the spice trade were getting rich off of it. As Todd Brethauers put it in the video Pepper “500 years ago it [pepper] was worth its weight in gold, it was so rare. In fact, it was used as currency in some areas.” “And people who worked with it, sailors and dockworkers, had their pockets sewn shut to keep them from stealing it.” “And one of the reasons that Columbus was sent west by Ferdinand and Isabella was so that Spain could get its share of the profits being made in the spice trade.” What eventually came out of this is Columbus sailing west and running into the Caribbean Islands. He thought at that point he had reached “the spice islands” he had heard about in the existing in the east. In reality, he had just made contact with the Americas. What grew out of this was European expansion, the age of
Up till this point, I have painted a picture of peaceful sharing of ideas and resources. No longer can I keep up this disguise. There were horrifying atrocities committed against people across the scope of history. This was true during the spice trade, it continued during the Columbian Exchange and it continues to this day. From ripping people away from their families and putting them into enslavement, to waging war on civilizations and taking their land, to total genocide. It would be wrong of me to not acknowledge this. When the European age of discovery hit the Americas Europeans stole land from the indigenous people, committed brutal acts of genocide, and even used biological warfare against the people they encountered. While this is not the topic of this paper it would be disrespectful to the loss of life to not acknowledge it.
While these terrible circumstances took place there was still sharing that took place as well. The white man on this new continent was taught many things about new plants and animals. Flora of the nightshade family like tomatoes, potatoes, chilies (Deborah Madison 174) was shared by natives and have since spread around the world. On the other side Europeans brought with them significant amounts on animals, one of which is the horse which as gone one to take hold both within Native communities as well as wild in the western United States. Another major fauna that was brought to the Americans was the honeybee. (Imhoof and Hoppenhaus) While there were bees in the Americas none were as efficient as the honeybee. Europeans not knowing what would pollinate their plants they brought as well made sure to bring their pollinators with them (Imhoof and Hoppenhaus)
This exchange of food back and forth between the old world and the new world has significantly changed what we think of a native. For myself going up I always thought that oranges were from Florida when in fact, they are from Asia. I always thought that potatoes were from Ireland when they are really from Peru (Deborah Madison 174) I always thought that Tomatoes were from the Mediterranean when they are really from the Americas. The world view that has been created since the Age of Discovery has greatly altered regional cuisine and our understanding of traditional cuisine is.
There has been a forced reconnection of the globe through the expansion and use of technologies. The outcome of this is a mass integration of cultures. Call it a melting pot, or a tossed salad, or my personal favorite a compost heap. The impact of globalization on our cuisine and in turn our culture is to shed layers and blur lines. At times these lines blur the point where they can not be seen at all. It is somewhat troubling when you think that this happened without any thought towards its ramifications, positive or negative. On the one hand, as we move towards more and more integration it also creates and empathetic response and understanding. On the other hand, the loss of culture from moving from individual cultures to a mass global cultures removes much of the richness inherent in diversity. It is important to keep these things in mind moving into the future and to make intentional choices to direct outcomes that you feel are moving to the world you want to live in.
Billing, Jennifer, and Paul W. Sherman. "Antimicrobial Functions of Spices: Why Some Like It Hot." The Quarterly Review of Biology 73.1 (1998): 3-49. Web.
Deborah Madison, Vegetable Literacy, Ten Speed Press; 1 edition, March 12, 2013, p.174
Cornell Chronicle, Food bacteria-spice survey shows why some cultures like it hot, http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/1998/03/food-bacteria-spice-survey-shows-why-some-cultures-it-hot, 4, Mar 1998Markus Imhoof and Kerstin Hoppenhaus, Zero One Film. More Than Honey, 2012.
Pepper. Video. Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 18 Sep 2016. http://media1.academic.ed.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/eb-media/54/186954-024-5DA7AE67.mp4. Accessed 22 Oct 2016
"Spice trade." Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 1 Apr. 2016.http://academic.eb.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/levels/collegiate/article/69108. Accessed 22 Oct. 2016.
"Spice trade." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Oct. 2016. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Robert E Bjork, "spices and the spice trade." The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages. : Oxford University Press, 2010. Oxford Reference. 2010. Date Accessed 22 Oct. 2016 <http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780198662624.001.0001/acref-9780198662624-e-5440>.
“The Story of India: Spice Routes and Silk Roads,” director. Films Media Group, 2008, http://fod.infobase.com/portalplaylists.aspx?wid=11854&xtid=41062.