-by Elizabeth Mullally McWhirt- Little did Christopher Columbus know when he sailed west to find the East that his actions would launch a veritable revolution between two hemispheres; forever changing the foods that we eat, the technology that we use, the diseases that we suffer from, and even the plants and animals that we are familiar with.
On the face of it, it looks like the natives of the Americas got more than they gave (except for, perhaps, the disease part). After all, the Europeans brought with them the horse, the cow, the pig, the chicken, the goat, sheep, honey bees, wheat, fruits, rice and sugar. They also brought the wheel, gunpowder, iron, paper, the arch, large ships, the alphabet and codified laws. The new animals revolutionized farming and transport, while newly introduced foods greatly expanded Native American diets. Why did the Aztecs flavor their chocolate drinks with chilies? Because sweetening agents were unknown to them. Why did western hemisphere peoples not use the wheel? Because they didn’t have draft animals to pull carts or wagons. Yet, despite these important and very helpful eastern hemispheric additions to the western hemisphere, our world was profoundly improved by the introduction of western products and ideas into the eastern hemisphere. The result of this exchange of people, plants, animals, technology and disease is today known as the Columbian Exchange, and it forever altered our world.
So, exactly what did the native peoples of the western hemisphere do for us?
Almost 50% of our states have names derived from Native American names, including those of both Kentucky and Tennessee. Further, many cities, landforms, and rivers have names of Native American origin, such as Seattle and the Mississippi River. Everyday words include barbeque, hammock, hurricane and moccasin. Animal names include skunk, chipmunk and caribou.
Rubber and Chewing Gum
The Maya were the first to use rubber, almost a millennia before Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process. Mayan rubber balls were bouncy and used in games and religious ceremonies. The Maya also used rubber to make sandals and to glue handles to various implements. Chicle, a sticky white substance that seeps from the sapodilla tree, was enjoyed by both the Maya and the Aztecs, and became integral component of the first commercially made chewing gums in 1859.
Although the Maya first used rubber balls to deadly effect in their games (the losing team often being put to death), many sports we enjoy today were invented by Native Americans. These include hockey, kayaking, canoeing, snow shoeing, tobogganing, lacrosse, relay races, and tug-of-wars. Further, many Scouting and YMCA programs have activities based upon Native American crafts and lore.
Native Americans were the first ecologists. They had a deep respect for the land, often did not believe in private ownership, and never killed or cut down an animal or a plant they could not use. Harmony between man and his environment was considered very important.
Quite a number of herbs and plants used by native peoples are now important components of modern medicines. This includes quinine, ipecac, witch hazel, curare, cascare buckthorne, and coca. Sweat lodges” were used to purify the body.
The art of blending in with their environment was vital to Native Americans in their hunting. They wore animal skins, tied plants to their bodies, and made blinds to hide themselves when hunting wildlife. They also made decoys, whistles and other animal calls. Native peoples knew their quarry, and used their intimate knowledge of animal habits to entice prey or trick it.
Many ideas and philosophies of the Enlightenment were influenced by European concepts of the “noble savage,” a creature that was free, enjoyed equality and lived in harmony with his environment. Our founding fathers, in turn, were heavily influenced by the democratic ideals of the Enlightenment and incorporated these concepts into our government . Further, the idea of a government which had powers given to a central government as well as powers given to state governments was derived from the Iroquois League of Nations and championed by Benjamin Franklin. This included a process for admitting new members, which was later adapted for the admission of new states.
Although the bulk of disease-sharing went east to west, Native Americans did infect early European explorers with such illnesses as polio, hepatitis, tuberculosis and syphilis. Still, it was a very unequal exchange as European diseases devastated New World populations, often carrying a death rate of 90%.
On a more personal level, the exchange of food between the two hemispheres probably has had a greater impact than anything else on or daily lives. Can you imagine pizza without tomato sauce? Or Chinese food without peppers? Tomatoes and peppers were products from the western hemisphere. Other important foods shared with Europeans included corn, squash, beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, vanilla, and chocolate. Besides exponentially expanding what could be cooked and consumed, these new foods greatly improved the quality of nutrition globally, increased the consumption of protein among the less fortunate (beans), and led to an enormous population boom, particularly in cooler areas where the wheat crop was replaced with the more dependable potato.
If you are interested in learning more about Native American contributions I recommend two books both written by Jack Weatherford. They are: “ Indian Givers” and “Native Roots.” Both are available for purchase online or from Amazon.