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Environmental and health effects of European contact with the New World

AP.USH:
KC‑1.2.I.B (KC)
,
SOC (Theme)
,
Unit 1: Learning Objective D
European arrival in the Americas decimated both indigenous people and previously-flourishing ecosystems. 

Overview

  • Colonization ruptured many ecosystems, bringing in new organisms while eliminating others.
  • The Europeans brought many diseases with them that decimated Native American populations.
  • Colonists and Native Americans alike looked to new plants as possible medicinal resources.

Environmental changes

The European presence in America spurred countless changes in the environment, negatively affecting native animals as well as people. The popularity of beaver-trimmed hats in Europe, coupled with Native Americans’ desire for European weapons, led to the overhunting of beavers in the Northeast. Soon, beavers were extinct in New England, New York, and other areas. With their loss came the loss of beaver ponds, which had served as habitats for fish as well as water sources for deer, moose, and other animals. Furthermore, Europeans introduced pigs, which they allowed to forage in forests and other wildlands. Pigs consumed the foods on which deer and other indigenous species depended, resulting in scarcity of the game native peoples had traditionally hunted.
European ideas about owning land as private property clashed with indigenous people's understanding of land use. Native Americans did not believe in private ownership of land; instead, they viewed land as a resource to be held in common for the benefit of the group. Colonizers erected fields, fences, and other means of demarcating private property. Indigenous people who moved seasonally to take advantage of natural resources now found areas off-limits, claimed by colonizers.
Colonists trading furs of overhunted beavers. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Introduction of disease

Perhaps the single greatest impact of European colonization on the North American environment was the introduction of disease. Microbes to which native inhabitants had no immunity caused sickness and death everywhere Europeans settled. Along the New England coast between 1616 and 1618, epidemics claimed the lives of 75 percent of the indigenous people. In the 1630s, half of the Huron and Iroquois people living near the Great Lakes died of smallpox. The very young and the very old were the most vulnerable and had the highest mortality rates. The loss of the older generation meant the loss of knowledge and tradition, while the deaths of children only compounded the trauma.
Some indigenous people perceived disease as a weapon used by hostile spiritual forces, and they went to war to exorcise the disease from their midst. These “mourning wars” in eastern North America were designed to gain captives who would either be adopted or ritually tortured and executed to assuage the anger and grief caused by loss.
An engraving by Samual Eastman of Native Americans afflicted by disease. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

New plants make new medicines

European expansion in the Americas led to an unprecedented movement of plants across the Atlantic. A prime example is tobacco, which became a valuable export as the habit of smoking took hold in Europe. Another example is sugar. Columbus brought sugarcane to the Caribbean on his second voyage from Spain in 1493, and thereafter a wide variety of other herbs, flowers, seeds, and roots.
Notably, Europeans traveled to America to discover new medicines. The task of cataloging the new plants found there led to the emergence of the science of botany. Early botanists included the English naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, who traveled to Jamaica in 1687 and there recorded hundreds of new plants.
Early English botanist Hans Sloane. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Native Americans, who possessed a vast understanding of local New World plants and their properties, would have been a rich source of information for those European botanists seeking to find and catalog potentially useful plants. Enslaved Africans, who used medicinal plants in their native land, adapted to their new surroundings by learning the use of New World plants through experimentation and from the indigenous inhabitants. Native Americans and Africans employed their knowledge effectively within their own communities.

What do you think?

How did the environment of the Americas suffer from European contact? How did it benefit?
Did the markets in Europe influence the development of botany and agriculture in the New World? How so?
How did indigenous people and colonists exchange both knowledge and materials to make new medicines?

Want to join the conversation?

  • hopper jumping style avatar for user Yago
    Did the african slaves and the natives co-operate in trying to work against the colonists? Or did they not have much contact with each other?
    (23 votes)
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    • duskpin tree style avatar for user Caitlyn peacock
      White colonists feared that slaves, indentured servants, and Indians would collaborate because if they did, they'd be able to outnumber the colonists.Therefore they tried their hardest to keep them separate in a multitude of ways. Some colonists actually occasionally ran off to live with Indians because they liked their lifestyle
      better or because they had more food than the colonists, the latter was a more likely reason when colonists first began to settle in America.
      (22 votes)
  • primosaur tree style avatar for user Ben
    did the Europeans even know that tobacco was bad for you back then
    (5 votes)
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  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user Michel Ostiguy
    The Europeans brought diseases to the new world that native Americans had no immunity against. How come the reverse didn't happen? Were there not diseases that native Americans had that Europeans had no immunity against?
    (9 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user nglapex
      Good question! While it is true that European immune systems were stronger, they did experience new diseases when arriving to the New World. However, the natives were mostly eager to help the new settlers with their means of healing those diseases. As an example you could use Jacques Cartier, “Jacques Cartier’s Second Voyage to the St. Lawrence River and Interior of “Canada,” 1535-1536. In this story, Europeans got a disease fairly unknown to them (in retrospect, this was probably a form of scurvy). When they noticed a boy that was magically healed from it through the sap of a certain tree, they used it to heal themselves. Then cut it all down, cuz yeah, Europeans saw good money in it.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user iee6308
    why did the natives get punished even though they didnt do anything
    (6 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The White Europeans regarded the native population as less than human, as beasts of burden to be exploited for the profit of adventurers from Europe and investors IN Europe. When the native populations were sufficiently decimated to no longer be of use for profit-producing labor, the White Europeans resorted to enslavement of Africans (also considered less than human) to do the work.
      (9 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user bryan.padilla21
    How did Europeans kill the indians
    (5 votes)
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    • primosaur sapling style avatar for user Goldleaf
      The European settlers killed Native Americans both intentionally and unintentionally. Intentionally, they did it using guns or some sort of weapon; one time they even gave them blankets they had exposed to smallpox virus. Unintentionally it was mainly through disease, as the Native Americans had no immunity to the bacteria and viruses the Europeans brought.
      (6 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Rachna158🦄
    What is syphilis disease (I am hearing about this in the practice and have no idea what is)? And how did this get pasted on to the Natives?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops tree style avatar for user ss20k.miguel.beate
    how did they have the knowledge to make new medicines?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      In a class discussion at Los Angeles Pierce College in 1973, in a cross department course on the 20th century, a student was trying to make a point about the goodness of 20th century science, and basing her argument on medical advances. The science professor on the panel stopped her, reminding all of us that Medicine was not a science, but one of the Dark Arts.
      New medicine came then, and comes even now, from the collected folk wisdom and experiences of the deep past.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user rfox1880
    Why do you think the europeans thought they could treat the natives any less than themselves?
    (1 vote)
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    • spunky sam blue style avatar for user B.K.
      To put it very frankly, it was just the way it was at the time. I don't believe that you should judge people of the past by today's standards, so I still respect them for the good things they did, but their racism was not right.
      (2 votes)
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user papa28
    How did the Columbian Exchange affect the Old World? Were there any of the diseases that got passed on to those European white guys from the Native American dudes?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Some have posited that Syphillis, a sexually transmitted disease, traveled to Europe from the Americas. In that case, it would have more likely been passed to European white guys by Native American women (rather than dudes). BUT, evidence of syphillis was found in the bones of people who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvias 1500 years earlier, so the argument is not certain. You could look this up in a history of Sexually Transmitted diseases.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Brandon Teixeira
    How value was tobacco to them ? Was it value like sugar or was it more value than sugar ?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Sugar is a bulk product, and tobacco, by comparison, a "craft" product. Production of each required heavy labor and land input, but per kilo of product weight tobacco was, and remains, far more valuable. Consider, if you will, the relative prices of a kilo of each today.
      (2 votes)