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Book: International Germplasm Transfer: Past and Present
Published by: Crop Science Society of America and American Society of Agronomy



  1.  p. 3-29
    CSSA Special Publication 23.
    International Germplasm Transfer: Past and Present

    Ronny R. Duncan (ed.)

    ISBN: 978-0-89118-602-1


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Biological Transfer, Agricultural Change, and Environmental Implications of 1492

  1. Karl W. Butzer
  1. University of Texas Austin, Texas



The Columbian Exchange involved not only a transfer of germplasm between two hemispheres on an unprecedented scale, but also the readaptation of agrosystems, representing distinctive crop repertoires, risk strategies, management techniques, cuisines, and values. The European colonists brought an agrosystem to the New World that was primarily derived from the Mediterranean Basin; its success varied greatly, depending on environmental compatibility and economic or cultural competition with indigenous alternatives. Similarly, existing New World agrosystems responded to the new agronomic information by incorporating many Old World crops, sometimes with their attached management practices; both the Mexican and Andean agrosystems were hybridized, but they have successfully retained their identities up to the present. This chapter seeks to understand the actual processes of systemic change and interaction, within the Spanish colonial sphere, from ecological and historical perspectives. Indigenous adaptation of Old World germplasm apparently was overwhelmingly voluntary, in response to new agricultural, nutritional, and economic opportunities, much as the global migration of food crops has been benign, improving the quality of human life worldwide. The chapter also examines the impact of European agrotechnology on New World environments, and does not find support for the currently popular hypothesis of colonial devastation.

The 500th anniversary of 1492 brought more than enough media coverage, commercial exploitation, and ideological polarization. But that should neither deter nor distract the scientific community from reexamining the aftermath of 1492 in a longer, historical perspective. The Columbian Quincentenary marks an encounter that opened the two hemispheres to human and biotic exchange. The direct impacts, the complex feedbacks, and the continuing implications of that intercontinental exchange are pertinent subject matter for most of the natural and social sciences (Butzer, 1992a).

Cultural ecologists are interested in how people manage resources by a range of strategies regarding diet, technology, settlement, reproduction, and the necessary systemic maintenance between them. The environment, as the wherewithal of long-term survival, is integral to such research. Agriculture is equally fundamental in cultural behavior and the alternative strategies that different societies choose. A great deal of common ground exists between cultural ecology and macro-agronomy, and this chapter will explore a number of themes that concern both fields, despite their distinct perspectives and methods.

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Copyright © 1995. Copyright © 1995 by the American Society of Agronomy, Inc., Crop Science Society of America, Inc., 5585 Guilford Rd., Madison, WI 53711 USA