It is the year 1491. America is a vast land with vast resources. Millions of bison roam beside huge forests, the waters are teeming with fish, and in the sky huge flocks of birds block out the sun. But America is not a pristine wilderness. It is an old continent, inhabited by a hundred million people. They live in complex urban societies that know little of each other. Some of them are expanding, others declining. On the Upper Mississippi River Valley is Cahokia, one of the continent's largest civilisations. From atop the Andes, the Inca rule a kingdom of six million. In the Amazon basin, the Beni people flourish. They have built a vast infrastructure of earthworks, orchards, canals and causeways. These peoples all have sophisticated agricultural techniques. They grow crops and domesticate animals unknown to the rest of the world.
Europe that same year is a very different place. The same numbers of people live here, in one tenth of the space. This continent is busy and crowded. Europe’s forests are cleared for agriculture and shipbuilding. Its rivers are fished empty and polluted. Cities are growing, competition is blossoming, and people are pushing their limits. There is a feeling that frontiers have been reached. Suddenly the crucial trade routes to the Orient fall in the hands of the Turks. The elite fears for its wealth. Their greed for more power, land and money drives European kings and queens. And it makes them reach for the horizon.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus leaves the port of Seville, driven by the vision of sailing west, to find the riches of the East. On October 12, 1492, Columbus lands on what he thinks are the shores of the Orient. But he is wrong. These are the shores of the Americas – the New World. He is about to spark an ecological revolution that will become known as The Columbian Exchange. After Columbus comes an endless wave of explorers, conquistadors and settlers, and African slaves - each of their ships a Noah's Ark and carrying Old World plants, animals - and disease.
In the first 150 years of contact, entire civilizations are wiped out by ‘accidental biological warfare’. Imported animals such as pigs, cows, and horses spread throughout the land. European wheat and weeds conquer the continent. And they also take away, cutting down whole forests and depleting the bountiful fish supplies, just as they had done at home. Back in Europe, the introduction of New World plants revolutionizes agriculture and the diets of Old World nations.
In the 18th century, the Columbian Exchange is in full swing. In North America, oak and chestnut forests are replaced by apple and peach trees. Where once bison roamed, cattle spread. The metamorphosis of the Americas is nearly completed. The Atlantic coast has been transformed in the image of England, France, and Spain. The settlers have not discovered a New World. They have created one – in their own image. When Europeans set sail, their motives were economic, political and religious; but their true legacy was largely biological.