By Dr Michelina Andreucci
THE Portuguese were the earliest participants in the Age of Discovery.
From about 1418-1420, the Portuguese began to systematically explore the Atlantic coast of Africa.
With small ships known as ‘caravels’, they sailed along the African coast carrying spices, gold, slaves and other goods from Asia and Africa to Europe.
In 1492, Italian navigator-explorer, Christopher Columbus (1450-1506), funded by Spain, sailed west; crossing the Atlantic Ocean in search of spices from the Indies.
He reached the Americas instead, which were perceived as the ‘new world’.
Columbus completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, under the auspices of the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, where he endeavoured to establish permanent settlements.
This initiated the European colonisation of the New World (the Americas).
Ultimately the entire Western Hemisphere came under European governments’ control, including Britain, leading to profound changes in landscapes, populations, as well as plant and animal life.
The Spanish Crown of Castile also promoted the first circumnavigation of the world by Juan Sebastián Elcano and Ferdinand Magellan in 1521.
Portugal and Spain became maritime powers.
To prevent conflict between the two powers, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed in 1494, dividing the world into two regions of exploration and giving each power exclusive right to claim newly ‘discovered’ lands.
Just as European powers divided Africa among themselves during the Scramble for Africa, almost four hundred years later, the Treaty of Tordesillas ‘gave’ Portugal ‘everything’ outside Europe east of a line that ran 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands, including those discovered by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage; giving Portugal control over Africa, Asia and eastern South America (Brazil).
All the territories west of this line that covered the western part of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean islands, that were virtually still unknown, were taken by the Spanish.
In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias (circa 1451-1500), a Portuguese explorer and nobleman of the Portuguese royal household, became the first European to reach the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic, by sailing around the southern-most tip of Africa.
These were the early navigators-explorers to explore and colonise the hitherto unexplored southern African regions.
In 1498, another Portuguese expedition, commanded by Vasco da Gama, reached India, by sailing around Africa and opening up direct trade with Asia.
For the first time, European traders could trade directly with India and other parts of Asia, bypassing the overland route through the Middle East, thereby circumventing expensive middlemen.
While Portugal was building up vast territories in the Indian Ocean, the Spanish, assisted by conquistadors, searched for gold and other valuable resources in the interiors of the conquered lands, such as Mesoamerica.
Once the Spanish established sovereignty in the Americas, they discovered empires as large and populous as those in Europe; rich with silver and gold treasures which they extorted and exported.
This was much as Cecil John Rhodes and the pioneers had done on colonising Zimbabwe.
By the late 16th Century, looted American silver accounted for one-fifth of Spain’s total budget.
Christopher Columbus’ crossings of the Atlantic Ocean, between 1492 and 1504, were soon followed by European conquests, large-scale exploration, looting, colonisation, slavery and industrial development of the ‘New World’.
Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci established that Christopher Columbus had not ‘found’ the East Indies as he thought, but had instead reached new continents.
The Latin adaptation of Vespucci’s first name – ‘America’ — is still used today,
The Columbian Exchange, the era post-1492, marked the unparalleled and widespread exchange of animals, plants, culture and human populations (including slaves), knowledge, information and communicable diseases between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres.
During this time, pandemics such as measles, smallpox, flu, dysentery and typhus were sweeping across Europe.
These hitherto unknown European diseases were spread to the New World where they decimated entire indigenous populations. The pre-Columbian era incorporates the history and pre-history of the Americas, spans from the original human arrival in the Upper Palaeolithic Era to European colonisation, slavery and the significant that followed.
African slaves contributed not only their labour, but knowledge and creativity to the emergence of the Americas.
Traditionally, indigenous peoples of the Americas were hunter-gatherers, with some societies already practising agriculture while others practised mixed farming, hunting and gathering.
In Amazonia, they practised aquaculture as well as agriculture which continue to this day. The South American highlands became a centre of early agriculture. Many crops, first domesticated by indigenous Americans, are now known and used worldwide.
Over the course of thousands of years, American indigenous peoples domesticated, bred and cultivated a large array of significant plant species, which today constitute 50-60 percent of all crops in the world.
Among them is maize which undoubtedly became one of the most important crops in the world.
Many varieties of Peruvian maize had been known to the Incas for centuries; it was used to make ‘chicha’, a fermented alcoholic beverage, like our local Chibuku beer (although Chibuku includes other grains).
It is estimated that the ancient Incas cultivated about 70 other crop species and around 200 varieties of Peruvian potatoes.
Today 99 percent of potatoes cultivated worldwide are from an indigenous sub-species that was cultivated 10 000 years ago.
Other crop species developed in Mesoamerica include tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, squash (pumpkins, zucchini, marrow, butternut), most of the common beans, including tepary beans, pinto beans and lima beans; avocados, strawberries, pineapples, peanuts, coca, cocoa beans (used to make chocolate), sunflower seeds and vanilla, including various peppers, chili peppers, paprika and other species as well as tobacco, rubber, cotton and Brazilwood.
In some cases, they developed entirely new species and strains through artificial selection; such as the domestication and development of maize from wild grasses found in the southern Mexican valleys.
The development and domestication of crops and livestock was known and practiced by the people of MaDzimbahwe centuries later.
The impact of Mesoamerica’s agricultural endowment to the world is a testament of their knowledge in reforming the indigenous flora of their terrain; mostly only using simple digging sticks!
South-Central America, along with the Middle and the Far East, India and Africa (Ethiopia) are the world’s historic centres of crop diversity.
Similar to the early inhabitants in Nyanga, the people living along the dry Pacific coastlines and on the high mountainous slopes of the Andes, the Inca, created and used extensive terraced fields, still used by many of the Inca farmers today.
With the passage of time, Spanish conquistadors disseminated many of these crops that today are essential worldwide; many still retain their indigenous names in the English and Spanish lexicons.
Concurrently, varieties of wheat, barley, rice and turnips were taken from the Old World and introduced to the New.
Approximately 4 000 years ago, during the Late Archaic period in North America, indigenous populations were practising ‘fire-stick’ farming; the intentional and systematic burning of vegetation, used to mimic the effects of natural fires, as a way of enhancing productivity.
By controlling the use of fire, they cleared forest undergrowth which facilitated the cultivation of plants that were important for both food and medicines.
‘Fire-stick’ farming was also used by indigenous Aborigines in Australia who practiced ‘fire-stick’ farming for over 5 000 years; a method of cultivation that still continues in Zimbabwe today.
Concurrently, in the Mississippi River valley, indigenous communities managed orchards by prescribed burning not far from villages and towns and further away in forest and prairie areas; possibly to control livestock infestations, which, according to Dr Tony Monda, was practised in East Africa.
In part four of ‘Cattle — a custodial heritage of Zimbabwe’ (The Patriot, May 19-25 2017), Dr Monda confirms that:
“…Prior to the arrival of German settlers in East Africa… indigenous people contained East Coast fever from spreading through the burning of long grasses … the breeding ground for ticks, the carriers of a number of diseases including East Coast fever… similarities to Texas fever…”
I believe these indigenous people also practised fire-stick farming for livestock management.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org