During my PhD, I charted the disease and social history of the turkey from the Americas to Europe, looking at broad trends in the translocation and reception of the species and how the physical transformation of the bird over time was inextricably linked to human perceptions. My results were exciting, but the story of the turkey is only one strand in the so-called “Columbian Exchange”, a vast tapestry of bio-transposition which initially took place in the context of incipient globalisation.
Reflecting upon the contents label of a well-deserved bar of chocolate, I realised that I couldn’t remember a day that I didn’t consume or use an item that relied in some way upon one of these “New World” plants and animals.
Thanks to globalisation, the present-day ubiquity of species taken from the Americas (and our reliance upon them) is staggering. The number and diversity of plant crops (50-90, depending upon somewhat arbitrary spatial delineations and whether products such as maple syrup are included) and non-human animal domesticates (exactly 5, including the turkey) translocated to Europe and beyond from the 16th century is truly remarkable. For the most part, we Anthropocene-dwellers take the accessibility of these plants and animals for granted despite—of perhaps because of—their overwhelming economic value. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 462,873,000 turkeys, 7,176,650 tonnes of tobacco, 1,037,791,518 tonnes of maize and 4,450,263 tonnes of cocoa beans were produced in 2014 globally.
When each species arrived from the Americas, it was perceived in different ways and often very swiftly disseminated. The tomato, linked in some folklore traditions to werewolves (the species name in Solanum lycopersicum translates to “wolf peach”), found early success in the Low Countries, but not nearby Britain. The potato, and the 1840s blight which led to the deaths of millions of people in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands alone, spurred more than a century of population decline in Ireland and became symbolic of an entire era in Irish history. Pumpkins graced the tables of the great and lent texture and gravitas to 16th and 17th-century still life paintings. Maize (used primarily as fodder in continental Europe) rapidly became vitally important to many communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Trading routes became vectors for translocation of these species. We excavate their material remains (skeletal fragments, seeds, phytoliths, equipment for processing or consumption, depictions, etc.) from post-1500 archaeological sites across Europe and Africa, and occasionally specialists produce regional or multi-site papers on specific types of evidence (smoking pipes, charred seeds, animal bones). But even if one only thinks of the archaeology, multiple types of evidence are key to critical and balanced interpretation. I know of exactly one archaeological instance of Nicotiana sp. (tobacco) in Europe, but ceramic smoking pipes are so commonplace that I can’t walk anywhere in Leicestershire without my husband picking pipe fragments out of the plough soil near walking paths. Britain is not unique in this regard. Recent work in the Wadi Draa south of the Anti Atlas Mountains in Morocco has revealed yet more ceramic smoking pipe fragments. A headline article in yesterday’s Guardian recounts the dirty deeds of the tobacco industry in Africa. Yet, the long-term social impact, human perceptions, and physical transformations of these many plants and animals over the last 500 years remains largely unexplored from an archaeological perspective, to say nothing of their environmental impact, use in practice, or role as cultural symbols.
Surely the long-term social impact of these species is worthy of large-scale, comprehensive archaeological investigation beyond simple species identification and a sentence that might mention Columbus. There is certainly scope for a multi-species perspective on these developments. A quick bit of research and a moment or two with Google Earth provides us with a map of the post-1500 archaeological finds of Cucurbita sp., pumpkins and squash, across Europe:
It is extremely likely that when I undertake more thorough research, further instances of these species will be revealed, and that some of these will coincide with finds of other introduced plants and animals.
There is also something else to consider. It should go without saying that the movement of plant and animal species worked in multiple directions. In addition to the introduction of species from the Americas into and through Europe, Africa, and beyond, a vast array of “Old World” domesticates (especially cereals, sheep, and cattle) were being moved into colonised lands by government agencies and settlers. The lives and lands of Indigenous peoples in the Americas were forever changed as a result—through efforts to clear land for settler livestock, initiatives to “civilise” Indigenous people through training in European crop management and animal husbandry, and otherwise. As with Europe and Africa, I am confident that a long-term, comparative archaeological investigation into the reception of these species will offer valuable insights: the origins of current perceptions and material evidence for changes in practice which are unlikely to be reflected in the written record. Most importantly, conducting this project presents the opportunity to fully acknowledge the role of settler colonialism in the movement and management of these species. I will expand on this further in a future blog post, but for the moment I will just express agreement with Billy-Ray Belcourt’s statement that “modern human-animal interactions in North America are possible because of and through the erasure of Indigenous bodies and the emptying of Indigenous lands for settler colonial expansion”. This connection demands careful and thoughtful investigation, with a re-centralising of Indigenous voices as a fundamental part of any research framework designed to examine the impacts of settler agricultural practice.
These are just a few initial thoughts, but check back—there will be more soon!