The Columbian Exchange: Our Debt to Indigenous Americans

Much of what we eat is due to the work of indigenous people

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By David Hammond

Sitting in Nando's Peri-Peri, we were enjoying chicken splashed with Nando's Peri-Peri sauce, seasoned with African Bird's Eye Chilies, which some sources say "grow wild" in Africa.

Chili peppers may grow wild in Africa now, but all chili peppers come from one place: Central America, specifically Mexico. The word "chili" is from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs who were defeated so soundly by Cortez in the early 16th century. And it was the Spanish who were largely responsible for introducing the rest of the world to chili peppers and a lot of other foods that have come to redefine the cuisines of many countries.

Imagine Thai or Indian food without chili peppers, Italian cuisine without tomatoes, Irish suppers without potatoes, the whole world without corn. All those seemingly essential food items – and a lot more including avocado, chocolate and peanuts – originated in the south-of-the-border Americas. And it wasn't like the indigenous folks – Aztecs, Maya, Mixtec, Inca and many others – were just lucky enough to live in a place where this stuff busted out of the ground unbidden. No, these foods were genetically engineered by selecting out the plants that had the most desirable characteristics and then cross-breeding them.

The fact that the cuisines of Africa, Italy and many other places are built upon ingredients that first grew in the Americas can be attributed to what's known as the Columbian Exchange: the movement of goods from the Old World to the New World and vice-versa, which started with the voyages of Christopher Columbus.

After the Spanish got a foothold in the Americas, they started developing chilies and other products as commercial foodstuffs, and thus native American food found its way onto the plates of people the world over.  What the indigenous people of the Americas received in exchange for their wealth and blood was disease, weapons, some animals like horses and an opportunity to engage in international commerce. Many of them, one can only guess, would have been happier just staying at home, unmolested, quietly eating their own food.

Of course, if it hadn't been Columbus and Cortez, someone else, at some point, would have sailed to the Americas. Whoever took charge in the Americas, however, it's certain that the delicious foods growing here would have been adopted to meet the needs of the visiting crews and, ultimately, the world…which still benefits from the agricultural advances made by indigenous people millennia ago.


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