The Columbian Exchange
In this lesson, students learn that the Columbian Exchange resulted in an enormous exchange of goods, resources, and institutions between the Old World and the New World and that the results of the Exchange were both positive and negative. The lesson begins with an activity in which students are divided into two groups: Old World consumers and New World consumers. Students are given food cards to keep or trade within each group, and later, among consumers from both groups. Although the expansion of trade provides students with more choices and has positive effects, some trades result in negative effects.
A second activity summarizes some of the positive and negative impacts of the Columbian Exchange, some of which students experience in the first activity. A final activity describes Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztec civilization that had a relatively well-developed economy in the 15th century despite the lack of capital resources
such as iron tools, wheels, and draft animals. The Aztecs adopted legal institutions that protected property rights and supported a market economy. The Spanish, who conquered the Aztecs in 1521, replaced these with institutions that restricted the ability of the native population of Mexico to produce and trade. Similar restrictions were imposed by European colonizers in other New World areas. Students learn that, in addition to the exchange of plants, animals, and culture, the exchange of institutions between the Old World and the New World had an important impact on the future economic growth of countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Historian Alfred W. Crosby used the phrase “the Columbian Exchange” to describe the widespread exchange of plants, animals, culture, institutions, people, and disease between the world’s Eastern and Western Hemispheres as a result of the voyages of discovery that began with Christopher Columbus in 1492. Crosby wrote that the Exchange “has created markets for Europe without which she would . . . be now a very different and a much poorer region. . . .” But Crosby also noted, “It is possible that [man] and the plants and animals he brings with him have caused the extinction of more species of life forms in the last four hundred years than the usual processes of evolution might kill off in a million.”1
In addition to the profound effects it had in the areas of ecology, agriculture, and culture, the Columbian Exchange also had important economic impacts. The Columbian Exchange teaches us that economic growth is a product not just of resources—fertile land, minerals, machinery—but also of legal and political institutions.
1 Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. 1972. The Columbian Exchange. Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,
This lesson was originally published in CEE’s Focus: Middle School World History, which provides history teachers with lessons that incorporate economics into a variety of world history topics from the neolithic period to 1776. Visit https://store.councilforeconed.org/ for more information about this publication and how to purchase it.
- List goods and resources that were brought to the New World from the Old World during the Columbian Exchange.
- List goods and resources that were brought to the Old World from the New World during the Columbian Exchange.
- Identify the impacts of the Columbian Exchange as positive or negative.
- Describe the characteristics of the Aztec civilization that enabled it to achieve a relatively high standard of living in the 15th century.
- Activity 20.1 – Enough copies of New World Food Cards and Old World Food Cards for each student to have two food cards (half of the students will have two New World Food Cards, the other half will have two Old World Food Cards)
- Activity 20.2
- Activity 20.3
- Slides 20.1–20.5
- Before class, review Activity 20.1, which provides the teacher instructions for “Trading in The Old World–New World Market.”
- Begin the lesson by telling the students that before 1492 C.E., the New World was cut off from the rest of the world. The voyages of Christopher Columbus and other explorers introduced new animals, plants, culture, and institutions to the New World. The Old World received other plants, animals, etc., from the New World. Many of the exchanges between the New World and Old World had positive impacts, but there were also negative impacts.
- Tell students that they will participate in a trading activity: “Trading in The Old World–New World Market.” Show Slides 20.1 and 20.2. Review the rules of the activity. Allow trade.
- After the first five-minute trading round is complete, ask students to report orally or by a show of hands whether they considered themselves better off as a result of their trades. Record the results on a chalkboard or whiteboard.
(Some students may be satisfied with the cards they were given and prefer not to trade. Voluntary trade should allow students to be better off than they were before trade took place.)
- Ask the students who among them were made better off by trade in the first round to explain why.
(Answers will vary but students should conclude that people like different types of food. Voluntary trade gave students more choices and these choices allowed them to obtain the foods they valued most.)
- Show Slide 20.3. Review the new rules of the activity (trade is allowed between New and Old World). Allow trade.
- After the second five-minute trading round is complete, show Slide 20.4. Note that some trade has resulted in unanticipated hardships for some.
- Ask students to report orally or by a show of hands whether they consider themselves better off as a result of their trades. Allow New World consumers who have “perished” to report. Record these results on the board and compare them to the results from the first round. Ask the students who among them were made better off by trade in the second round to explain why.
(By expanding trade to all, students were given more choices and more opportunities for voluntary trade to make themselves better off.)
- Ask students who were made worse off by their trades in the second round to explain why.
(The students who “perished” traded with incomplete information. They based their trades on benefits they expected to receive but did not realize they would become ill from the foods or animals they obtained or from the traders.)
- Ask students why some New World consumers were negatively affected by their second-round trades but Old World consumers were not.
(The Old World consumers had developed immunity to diseases through previous exposure. New World consumers had little or no exposure to these diseases prior to their first contact with Old World traders.)
- Distribute copies of Activity 20.2. The word “exchange” is often used to refer to trade (the voluntary exchange of goods and services for money or other goods and services). Those who engage in voluntary trade do so because they expect that they will be made better off. But many of the resources, goods, knowledge, diseases, and institutions that moved from the Old World to the New World and from the New World to the Old World were not the result of voluntary trades by buyers and sellers. Activity 20.2 identifies positive and negative impacts of the Columbian Exchange. Ask the students to read Activity 20.2, or read the activity aloud.
- Tell students that exposure to smallpox and other diseases brought to the New World by European explorers caused the loss of life of millions of Native Americans. Ask students why Native Americans were so adversely affected by these diseases.
(As Europeans raised animals such as pigs, chickens, and cows, they were exposed to the diseases the animals carried. Europeans built up immunity to the diseases over many years. In contrast, there were almost no species of animals that were domesticated in America. Therefore, Native Americans were not immune to Old World diseases. Their first exposure to the diseases carried by the animals often led to serious illness and death.)
- Summarize the class discussion by showing Slide 20.5, which depicts the movement of foodstuffs, resources, and diseases between the New World and the Old World that is known as the Columbian Exchange. Ask students why European governments were willing to provide financial support for voyages to the New World.
(They wanted valuable resources that were available in the New World, including silver and gold.)
- Distribute copies of Activity 20.3. Tell students to read the activity.
- Ask students why the Aztecs located their capital city in the middle of Lake Texcoco.
(This increased the difficulty that enemies of the Aztecs would face if they were to attack the city. They would have to enter Tenochtitlan in boats or along the city’s causeways.)
- Ask students what the term standard of living means.
(Answers will vary. Standard of living refers to the level of subsistence of a nation, a social class, or an individual with reference to the adequacy of necessities and comforts of daily life.)
- Tell students that even though the Aztecs did not use the wheel, iron tools, or draft animals to produce goods and services, they were able to achieve a standard of living that was higher than the standard of living in other areas of North and South America. Ask students to explain why.
(The Aztec capital city prospered because the legal system and the institutions it established allowed trade to flourish. The Aztecs established the legal foundations of a market economy; that is, the laws and institutions that support a market economy, including protection of private property and enforcement of contracts. A market economy relies on a system of interdependent market prices to allocate goods, services, and productive resources and to coordinate the diverse plans of consumers and producers, all of them pursuing their own interests. Productive resources include natural resources, human resources, and capital resources used to make goods and services.)
- Tell students that, when people specialize in the production of one good, they must trade with other people to obtain the goods and services they do not produce. Specialization is a situation in which people produce a narrower range of goods and services than they consume. Specialization increases productivity; it also requires trade and increases interdependence. Productivity refers to the amount of output (goods and services) produced per unit of input (productive resources) used. Ask students why specialization and trade increase the standard of living for a nation or an individual.
(People will specialize in producing that which they have the skills for. Experience with producing one good or service over time improves worker productivity as people learn by doing. People who specialize and trade are able to consume more goods and services than they would if they were self-sufficient.)
- Conclude discussion of the reading by asking the following questions:
- Would the Aztecs have increased their standard of living more by using iron tools, wheels, and draft animals?
(Students should agree that using these productive resources would have increased workers’ productivity and raised the standard of living of the Aztecs.)
- How were the Spanish conquistadors under the leadership of Hernán Cortés able to conquer the Aztecs?
(The Aztec population was decreased through exposure to infectious diseases, such as smallpox, and the Spanish were helped by tribes that the Aztecs had conquered. The Spanish had access to horses and steel weapons; the Aztecs did not.)
- Why did some colonies thrive and others not thrive, according to the reading?
(Some colonies encouraged trade and private property—these colonies did well. Others colonies regulated trade and did not reward people for their efforts—these colonies did not prosper.)
- Would the Aztecs have increased their standard of living more by using iron tools, wheels, and draft animals?
Conclude the lesson by reviewing the following points:
- The Columbian Exchange had important impacts in both the New World and the Old World, but not all of the impacts were positive.
- In addition to the exchange of resources, cultures, plants, animals, people, and disease between the Old and New Worlds after 1492, there was also an exchange of institutions that would have important effects on the economic growth of New World nations.
- Nations that adopted institutions that protected property rights and established legal systems that encourage trade had higher rates of growth than nations that did not establish these institutions.
- Usually, when two people make a voluntary trade they both benefit, but voluntary trade can make one person worse off if this person
- has less income than the other person.
- expects to receive greater beneï¬ts than the other person expects to receive.
- has less information than the other person about the good or service that is traded.
- is younger than the other person.
- Which of the following factors was most responsible for the relatively high standard of living in Tenochtitlan in the late 15th century?
- The Aztecs used steam engines as sources of power for producing goods and services.
- The Aztecs established institutions that protected rights to private property and encouraged trade.
- Aztec workers had become very productive by being self-sufficient in production.
- The Aztecs allowed a small number of individuals to control their government and economy.
- The Columbian Exchange resulted in important positive as well as negative impacts. How can we determine whether the net, or total, impact of the Exchange was positive or negative?
(Since the Exchange began, there has been a large increase in the world’s population, and the standard of living in many countries, such as the United States, has risen. But millions of people died and millions more were enslaved because of the Exchange; these people only experienced negative effects. The comments by Alfred Crosby in the introduction to this lesson reflect the mixture of positive and negative impacts of the Exchange. Perhaps the best answer to this question is that the overall impact was positive, but the effects on some groups and individuals were not.)
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