Columbian Exchange
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Basic Information

Prior to 1492 the world was divided in two, and many plants, animals, fungus, and diseases existed only on one side of the globe or the other. The term Columbian Exchange refers to the transition that started in the late 15th Century whereby these forms of life moved between the two regions.

Aside from lifeforms, a number of cultural influences and much technology crossed the ocean for the first time in the early days of the Columbian exchange. It's at least worth noting that guns, germs and steel all had a strong part to play in the ensuing drama and power-plays. And of course, slavery and other forms of servitude brought many humans across the sea against their will, and disrupted lives and communities in the process. There is also the small matter of the massive flows of gold and silver that (mainly Spain) extracted from the New World that financed a series of wars in Europe, but ironically did lasting inflationary damage to the Spanish economy. The nations of Northern Europe also enriched themselves with New World resources, but generally on a trade and investment basis that had less extreme economic effects back home1.

Our Foods of the Old and New Worlds page gives a list on the edibles (and a few inedible plants) that existed only one side or the other of that divide. The page you are currently on lists example from another big category of biological entities: disease.

Old World Diseases:

New World Diseases:



Game and Story Use

  • In a pre-modern historical setting, germs are a big deal. Plagues may devastate one population while leaving another (who have generations of resistance built up) virtually unscathed.
  • In fantasy game with historical parallels you can subvert or play with expectations. What if one side has guns and steel, but the other side has resistance to the really nasty super-bugs? Things might play out very differently with just one of the three big factors inverted.
    • Can you say "ooh-laah"? If not, you're probably on the side with the disease resistance.
  • In a time-travel game, the PCs may need this information to make sure they've had the appropriate vaccinations before heading into the past.
    • …and, forget stepping on butterflies, your modern versions of various diseases may wreak havoc on our ancestors. Conversely, someone from the past might bring forgotten plagues with them … smallpox, for example, is all but extinct in the modern era but was endemic pretty much everywhere before the eradication campaigns of the mid C20.
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