Plants & Human Affairs
Cherries.wmf (7140 bytes) Plants & Human Affairs (BIOL106)  -  Stephen G. Saupe, Ph.D.; Biology Department, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Collegeville, MN 56321;;

The Botany of Columbus Day

   "Sublime irony lies in the fact that, in seeking a fast route to the 'pepper islands,' Columbus got the wrong islands, named the wrong Indians, and found the wrong peppers".

J. Kingsbury 1992

I. General

II. A Myth Debunked
    A popular misconception is that Columbus discovered that the Earth was round. However, this was known long before – in fact since the ancient Greeks. This flat earth myth/misconception was apparently created by Washington Irving in his biography of Columbus. There are several lines of evidence that suggested the earth is a sphere (Rickey, 1992):

  1. Pythagoras (560 – 480 BC) was probably the first to report. His evidence is not known but perhaps due to the belief that the sphere is the most perfect of solid figures. Or, more likely, he saw ships "hull down" as they reached the horizon, or saw "mountains rising" as approached.
  2. Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) observed the Earth's shadow was round during an eclipse. Also, noted that different stars are visible in different locations (i.e., Greece & Egypt). He concluded the earth is small since only a short distance was required to observe this difference.
  3. Erastothenes (276 – 195 BC) calculated size of earth (once it roundness was accepted) based on several assumptions/observations: (a) earth is spherical, (b) rays of sun are parallel to the earth; (c) in Aswan on the summer solstice a vertical pole casts no shadow but in Alexandria the angle cast by a shadow was 1/50 of a circle; (c) Alexandria is directly south of Aswan; (d) the distance between Aswan and Alexandria is 5,000 stadia (about 10 stadia/mile). Therefore, the circumference of the earth was 5000 x 50 = 250,000 stadia. Or, the circumference is approximately 25,000 miles which, considering the error in some of the assumptions, is remarkably accurate.
  4. Columbus had heard stories of strange trees that floated up on the west coast of Africa and knew prevailing winds from west in winter; Columbus knew fall winds blew to the east and seas were generally calm.

As an aside, the reality is that Columbus never actually proved the Earth is round because he never reached Asia.

III. How Long Would the Journey Be?
   The main question for Columbus was not whether the world was round, but rather, how far was it to reach the West Indies? He calculated that the distance was about 2,400 nautical miles (in actuality from Azores to Japan it is about 10,600 nautical miles). His estimates were based on the presumed size of known land masses and Eratosthenes measurement (estimated a degree to be about 59.5 nautical miles). Thus, if assumed the known world covered about half the globe (i.e., 180 degrees) as suggested by Ptolemy and increase the estimate for Asia based on Marco Polo's travels, Columbus assumed the distance from his starting point in the Canaries to the West Indies was about 68 degrees of ocean. At latitude 28 degree where he planned to sail, Columbus adjusted his calculation to 40 nautical miles per degree. This yielded distance of 60 x 60 = 2400 nautical miles. Columbus presented his idea to the King of Portugal and his Maritime Advisory Committee. Since Columbus' estimates disagreed with best ones of the day, they denied his proposal. Finally Columbus convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to let him go.

    Although his mileage estimates were off, Columbus estimated the voyage would take 21 – 28 days (depending on winds). It took him 33 days. As a result, because he completed his trip according to predicted plans, he assumed that he landed in the West Indies. This is a great example of a non-causal correlation.

IV. The Egg Trick
    There is a popular story that Columbus marveled a crowd by positioning an egg vertically on end without crushing it. This story was even recorded in the 1949 film, "Christopher Columbus" starring Frederic March. How did he do it?  Presumably Columbus either: (a) hard-boiled the egg; (b) cracked the egg surreptitiously; or (c) placed the egg in a pile of salt.  There is some disagreement over the significance of the story – was it to allay fears that the earth was round and could stay in one place or simply that even difficult things can be done if you know the trick.

V. The First Voyage

VI. Columbus the Botanist
   He wasn't a good botanist. "I am the saddest man in the world for not knowing what kinds of things these are because I am sure that they are valuable" (log dated October 21, 1492)

VII. Algae and Columbus

A. Sargassum

    1. land was near – not true (but probably was comforting to the sailors) assumed from "I saw a great deal of weed today from rocks that lie to the west. I take this to mean we are near land." (Sept 17, 1492).  "We saw much weed of the kind I have already mentioned...In a way this weed comforted me, since they have concluded it must come from some nearby land."(log Sept 20)
    2. worried about getting stuck – impossible but he steered clear
    3. worried about getting wrecked on rocks (since most algae grew on rocks) sailed through it from Sept 16 – Oct 3

 B. "Withered old weed" & "new little fresh weed with …fruits"
    "There is more weed, but it is withered and old. There is a little fresh weed that bears something like fruit" - Log entry on October 3. Another entry on October 8 "Very fresh weed has been seen."  Suggests one of attached species that had broken free. This is more evidence of land.

    The fruits probably were float bladders, from an alga like Fucus or more likely Turbinaria, because it remains alive longer.

VIII. Plants Columbus Found
    Columbus was looking for spices such as black pepper (highly prized), ginger, rhubarb, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and cloves. However, he found a much different array of plants.

A. Aloe

  • Columbus thought he had found "aloe" (Aloe barbadensis) – many products especially skin conditioners, cosmetics, burns, laxative.
  • Reported finding something, was probably Agave – similar in appearance, but much larger and not as fleshy (Agave missionum, A bahamense).

B. Tobacco

  • Columbus wrote in his logs, "[the natives]…brought us…many other things, including a kind of dry leaf that they hold in great esteem" (Oct 12) and "my two men found many people who were going to different villages, men and women, carrying a charred hollow wood in their hand, and herbs to smoke in this wood, which they are in the habit of doing".
  • the word tobacco is from Arawak
  • smoked through nostrils in hollow tube, like a bamboo-cane

C. Capsicum peppers

  • C. annuum bell, paprika, chile, red, cayenne
  • C. frutescens – tabasco pepper
  • black pepper – Piper nigrum, berries, harvested, fermented, dried
  • found something that tasted similar – capsicum.
  • "there is also much aji, which is their pepper: no one eats without it because it is very healthy."
  • antibacterial properties, antioxidants

D. Chocolate

IX.  Consequence of the Voyage

A.  General.

  • "Europeanization" of America
  • intended – to provide explorers with familiar food
  • weaken resistance of native peoples
  • initiated trend toward biological homogeneity
  • around 60 million years ago earth as we know it began to take shape
  • NA separate for this time. The Bering land bridge submerged about 10,000 years ago. Geographic isolation led to difference in life forms.
  • then introduction of species – house sparrows, horses, carp
  • many species introduced intentionally, others introduced accidentally – hitchhike in folds of clothes, mud on shoes, etc.
  • many plants very successful (i.e., Kentucky bluegrass, dandelions, daisies)

B. Plants

  • major shift in diet
  • corn for wheat swap – took corn home on first voyage. returned with wheat on second
  • some typical American crops – corn, tobacco, squash, beans, peppers, potato
  • native/introduced/naturalized
  • go over sheet with crops listed

C. Animals

  • protein source – major increase in animal protein available in diet. "Europeans in American have possibly been the best-fed people in the world, a fact that has motivated more people to migrate to the New World than all the religious and ideological forces combined" (Crosby)
  • power source – extensive agriculture, could pull plow through heavy soil. windmills, waterwheels, carry burdens  
New World Old World
  • dog
  • llama
  • alpaca
  • guinea pig, turkey, Muscovy duck
  • no horse to ride, no beast of burden like ox or horse, ass
  • leather from wild game
  • pig – especially important, did well, reproduced, feral,
  • cow
  • horse
  • ox – beast of burden, allowed extensive cultivation
  • dogs
  • cattle
  • chickens
  • sheep
  • rats – carrier of bubonic plague, typhus, ate foods
  • goats

D. Ecological Consequences

  • Columbian exchange – has changed earth – inadvertently & intentionally
  • Impacts:
  1. erosion from cultivation
  2. decimation of grasslands
  3. extinction of more species in the 500 years than evolution might in 500 years. "The Columbian exchange has left us with not a richer but a more impoverished genetic pool. We, all of the life on this planet, are the less for Columbus, and the impoverishment is bound to increase."

Questions for Study/Thought:
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Last updated:  10/10/2008 / � Copyright  by SG Saupe