The encounter of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 was the greatest event of the late Middle Ages and is a convenient benchmark to date the beginning of the Modern Era. During the first two decades after the “discovery” of the Americas, only false hopes were forthcoming. Dyewood, cotton, monkeys, and parrots began to trickle out but the enormous riches alluded to by Columbus for the ears of his greedy patrons—gold, silver, and jewels—did not materialize. For a score of years, the Spanish confined themselves to a small piece of the Isthmus of Panama and the islands of the Antilles, but riches did not materialize and America was dismissed as another example of Spanish braggadocio. However, on 9 Dec. 1519, the first treasure ship consisting of booty sent by Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Montezuma II, ruler of Tenochtitlan in the Aztec empire, arrived in Spain, and the world was changed forever. It soon became apparent that the New World was not a land of savages but the home of great civilization, including a highly developed agriculture.
Three great cultures coexisted in America, although they were unaware of each other: Aztec, Mayan, and Incan. These were monumental civilizations similar in many respects to that in ancient Egypt with enormous temples in the form of pyramids, pictorial writing, a system of cities and government, a bewildering theology, magnificent art, and a developed agriculture. These cultures also had a dark side—slavery, constant warfare, the offering of living human hearts as sacrifice, and cannibalism. Archaeological evidence indicated that the New and Old Worlds were once connected through the Bering Strait and Asian peoples migrated to the Americas ≈50 thousand years ago. Ironically, Columbus, in searching for Asia, did discover their descendants.
The gold and silver objects of the New World were melted down to enrich Iberia in the short run, but they were used to finance European wars, which ultimately led to Spain’s decline. However, much more valuable than gold and silver treasures were the new crops from the New World that have continually enriched the bounty and cuisine of Europe and the world (Janick, 2011). Important New World crops are presented (Table 1). We review the history and images of New World crops with particular relevance to horticulture.
Selected crops indigenous to the New World.
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