Why did the Columbian Exchange happen?

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Unfortunately, the Columian Exchange undoubtedly took much more from the New World than it brought and wiped out most indigenous populations.

Over the course of the 16th and early 17th centuries, the wealth taken from the Americas to Europe constituted one of the largest transfers of wealth (precious metals, gems, dyes, artifacts)  in human history up to the present.  And although Europeans brought many useful items to the New World, they also brought smallpox, measles, influenza and other diseases to a population that had no antibodies to resist such diseases.  Historians and anthropologists estimate, for example, that this unintended consequence of the Columbian Exchange probably resulted in the death of between 70%-90% of the indigenous people in the Americas.

In addition, as European opportunists flooded into the Americas, some of whom started working the land and needed cheap (read, "free") labor, the slave economy became a central aspect of life for the remaining indigenous people in the Americas.

Just as the Columbian Exchange is seen as one of the most important events in history, then, it is also seen as the event that reduced Native American populations in the Americas almost to insignificance.

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The Columbian Exchange happened because Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World and other Europeans subsequently followed in his path.

The Columbian Exchange was the exchange of all sorts of things (including plants, animals, microbes, and even people) between the Old World and the New World.  Since the two worlds had been largely separate from one another for millions of years, they had developed separate sets of flora and fauna.  After Columbus came to the New World, things like horses, sugar cane, coffee, and smallpox started to flow to the New World.  At the same time, things like tomatoes and potatoes went in the other direction.

So, the Columbian Exchange happened because, after Columbus's voyages, two "worlds" that had previously been separate came into contact with one another.

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The “Columbian exchange” is a term popularized by Alfred Crosby in his 1973 book of the same name. Crosby formalized a concept that had been observed for several centuries, the two-way travel of plants, animals, and people between the Old World and the New World, primarily from the 1490s on, following Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean. The exchange occurred because people in both hemispheres found new resources valuable.

In its simplest iteration, scholars understand that because of particular geographic, social, and cultural conditions, a wider variety of plants useful to human beings developed in the New World, while more useful animals had been domesticated in the Old World. Some species existed in both hemispheres, often distinct varieties but closely related, such as sugar and cotton, but particular selections adapted well to new conditions. People and animals also carried diseases and their sources; those unique to old area devastated people who had no resistance. Particularly lethal in this regard was smallpox, which was taken from the Old World. The origins of syphilis are still debated; it may have been a new disease generated from combinations of others existing in both areas.

The New World food crops that Europeans took to Europe included maize (often called corn), potatoes, tomatoes, and chocolate, as well as non-food crops, especially tobacco. Along with the legendary spices, dyestuff were valued, especially cochineal, grown on cactus, for red. While large domesticated animals were found throughout western South America, camelids were food and fiber sources and pack animals, but cannot support adult riders or be used as draft animals; tapirs and pigs were food sources only. No mammals suitable for surplus milk production were found.

The Old World animals that were especially significant were horses, suitable for riding and draft; cows and oxen, for draft, meat, and dairy; and sheep, for meat and wool. Silk fiber was transported primarily from Asia; efforts to grow mulberry and raise silk worms in the Americas were largely unsuccessful. Among the valuable plants taken to the Western Hemisphere were wheat and the related grains barley and rye; rice; and olives. Grapes well suited for wine were also important as the indigenous American varieties had very small fruit.

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The short answer to this is that the Columbian Exchange happened because Columbus “discovered” the New World. 

“The Columbian Exchange” is the term that we use to refer to biological and cultural exchanges that happened between the New World and the Old World.  These two land masses had been separated for thousands of years by the time that Columbus sailed in 1492.  This meant that things were very different in the two worlds.  There were different plants and animals in the two worlds.  The people of the Old World had infectious diseases that were not present in the New World.  When the Europeans reached the New World, this changed.  They brought animals like horses, pigs, sheep and cows.  They found plants like tobacco, tomatoes, and potatoes and brought them to Europe.  Sadly for the native population of the Americas, the Europeans brought infectious diseases that killed (by some estimates) as many as 90% of the natives.  All of this happened because Europeans came to the New World, allowing the flora, fauna, and cultures of the two worlds to mix in the Columbian Exchange.

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