The Wild Life of Columbus

The untold story of the species that stowed away on Columbus’s ship and how they have since changed the world.

Columbus sailed to the Caribbean in 1492. On that landmark voyage, and in subsequent trips, he was not alone. On his small ships, he was with other sailors, as well as a wilderness of other species quietly stowed away. We don’t usually think of the ships as wilderness. In fact, the travels of some of the species Columbus and later conquistadors brought with them from Europe to the Americas, are well studied. They brought, we know, terrible pathogens to which Native Americans had never been exposed. They brought agricultural plants such as wheat, chickpeas, grape vines, apples, pears, peaches, pomegranates and more. They brought cows, pigs, chickens, goats, and horses. They also took at least one pathogen (syphilis) and many crops (tomatoes, potatoes, chili peppers, cassava, and cacao, among many, many others) back with them, either to Europe or to European settlements in Africa and Asia. All of this, if not perfectly understood, is well-studied, the subject, as one historian recently noted to me in jest (but only slightly) has occupied half of the work of the historians of the Americas.

[1] But a piece to this story is missing–an enormous one.

We have little idea, apart from the crops and human pathogens, what else was on those ships. What we do know is that the ships were likely to have been teeming with thousands of other species, that were incidentally transferred across a great continental divide. How do we know this? A ship is like a kind of house, except one that is far more densely inhabited than a house (density of sailors?), far less concerned with human hygiene, and far more packed with food stores, fuel for cooking fires, and potable drink needed for a long voyage across the sea. We know this, as we also now know, thanks to research in the last year, that the average home, a home with far less food than a ship (and far cleaner) contains tens of thousands of species of bacteria, thousands of species of fungi, and hundreds of species of insects and other animals. Our goal is to reconstruct, as best we can, the list of all of these species likely to have traveled with Columbus (and with subsequent conquistadors).

How will we achieve our goal? Our first step will be to ascertain the origin of the materials on Columbus’s ships. The food. The wood. The sails. And everything else, to the best of our ability, based on ships’ logs, historical documentation and other surviving sources. Our second step will be to consider the species likely to have traveled in or on such substrates. If we know, for example, where the timber used for firewood or spars was loaded onto the ship, we should be able to generate a list of wood-dwelling species with the potential to be spread. In some cases, this work will be aided by existing efforts. Archaeological studies, for instance, have shown that more than fifty species of European insects had already arrived at the colonial English settlement at Massachusetts Bay by 1640. Those insects had to have traveled on ships to the New World.

Our second step, though it won’t happen tomorrow, it may frankly be five years away, will be to empirically study archaeological sites, ship remains, and other physical vestiges of the voyages that the conquistadors took in order to understand their lives on these ships. Two things make such work possible. One is that small species are seldom considered at archaeological sites. A second is that new molecular approaches now allow us to find DNA from species in archaeological remains that were never considered when they were first studied. It is possible now, for example, to take core samples of bogs near early settlement sites, and reconstruct which species were represented in those bogs through time based on their DNA content. We are in discussions now to do just that.

For now though, the fist step is to rediscover the origin of the materials used to construct the ships and their cargo from historical documents. Ben Chapman is leading this effort, but with the collaboration of experts in marine species likely to have been incidentally brought onto the ship itself (Ben Reading, Scott Salger, Craig Layman), salt (Stephanie Matthews, Michelle Musante, Zak), wine and the species used to make it (Jose Bruno Barcena), insects associated with decomposition (Mary Jane Epps), household/shiphold microbes (Anne Madden), household insects (Matt Bertone, Michelle Trautwein) and others. Our effort is inclusive, a work of passion and fun rather than of competition and exclusion, which is to say that if you would like to be involved in our project, or have ideas about what we are missing, send us an email.

Meanwhile, as you walk through the dust in your home, dust filled with thousands of species, you might wonder which came from Europe and which species changed the life around you, what you breathe in, what you eat, and maybe even you.

[1] The other half, of course, focused on Jefferson. And the generals who lost the Civil War. :-)
By | 2016-11-22T13:46:43+00:00 February 2nd, 2016|

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One Comment

  1. Michael Reiskind February 3, 2016 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    How about mosquitoes? If not with Columbus, both Aedes aegypti and Culex pipiens came over early in the colonial period…

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