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The European Conquests – Fifth important transformation

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Proximate Causes of the Conquests

By the 15th century A.D. Europeans were able to reach other continents, to subjugate the natives, and to settle down. Following are the proximate causes of the conquests, factors not possessed (or possessed only to a lesser degree) by the subjected peoples. Ocean-going ships made long travels possible. Centralized state administration, together with writing and printing greatly helped the organization of the conquests. In the subjugation of the natives, Europeans relied on weapons not possessed by the subjugated (e.g., guns or swords of steel). They also had their horses and most significantly the “domesticated” pathogens. The domestic plant and animal species carried with them were essential for settling down on the new continents. However, since almost all of these species were suitable for temperate climates only, Europeans managed to displace native people from large areas in America and in Australia, but were able to settle down only in the southern region of Africa. Other parts of this continent were “merely” colonized by them.

Consequences of the Conquests

As a consequence of the conquests, the inhabited continents of the planet (Eurasia24, Africa, America, and Australia), which were more or less separated before, have become linked together in biological, social, and economic sense. The exchange of people, other living organisms, raw materials, goods, and information began among the continents. Particularly important was the spread of certain ingredients of the European (Eurasian) civilization that were almost unknown in the New World until then (e.g., the plow, metals, animal traction and wheeled vehicles used in transport). All the above changes had important consequences regarding human transformation of the biosphere.

Introduction of Wild Species

By the establishment of connections among the continents, humans - in most cases unintentionally - initiated the migration of many species mainly from Eurasia to new continents. The introduction of non-native species has been a problem ever since, in fact, an ever more serious one with the expansion of world trade and tourism. The invasion of introduced species is among the major causes of the current mass extinction of species and alters ecosystem processes as well.

Exchange of Domestic Species and the Beginning of the Population Explosion.

As a result of the conquests, the exchange of domestic species also began. Not only those of European origin (e.g., wheat and barley) spread around the world (together with European agricultural technologies), but also many American domestic species (especially plants) found their ways to other continents. For instance, manioc and sweet potato originating from South America have proved well cultivable on many lands of Africa and Asia that were considered unproductive before, and both of them are among the most important tropical crops today. Crops coming from America also reached temperate climates. In Europe, corn and potato have become the most important American newcomers. These two plants had several advantages compared with native Eurasian crops. For example, they were more productive per unit of land, and were cultivable on lands unsuitable for the native crops.

Increased agricultural yields due to the exchange of domestic species contributed to considerable population growth on every continent, which was further increased by other factors later. Consequently, a rapid growth of the world population began from about the mid-17th century. In the time of Christ about 250 million people lived on the planet and this number doubled only by about the mid-17th century. However, the next duplication took only 150 years: the world population reached 1 billion during the first decade of the 19th century.

The Birth of World Economy.

Trade began to flourish as a consequence of the conquests. From the conquered areas mainly raw materials arrived in Europe, while primarily manufactured goods and less significantly technologies flowed in the opposite direction. Europeans introduced the production of luxury crops in several colonies and these were imported to the home-countries. World economy was born in the 17th century with Europe as its center and main beneficiary. Later, other areas inhabited mostly by people of European origin (e.g., North America and Australia) have also become dominant in the world economy.

The global separation of the different phases of the economic process has become more and more common due to the birth of world economy. Consequently, people — including economic decision-makers - have been less and less confronted with the environmental damages taking place during the economic cycle of a certain product.

Disappearance and Weakening of Pre-Conquest Cultures.


The pre-conquest cultures weakened or even disappeared completely in many of the conquered areas. As a consequence, in many places the traditions of the sustainable management of natural resources also disappeared, and were often substituted by unsustainable practices. The establishment of generally monocultural plantations (e.g., coffee and rubber tree) together with logging has resulted in massive deforestation. Certain export crops (e.g., cotton and tobacco) have quickly exhausted soils, enforcing the expansion of cultivation to further and further virgin areas. The substitution of agricultural lands for tropical rainforests has had a similar consequence. In most cases, thin soils under these forests are suitable for cultivation only for a few years, after which further deforestation is needed. Also, the mining of raw materials has often caused serious environmental damages on the conquered continents. These processes have resulted in the transformation of natural ecosystems, the extinction of many species, the acceleration of soil erosion, the alteration of biogeochemical cycles, and in several cases climatic changes as well. The disappearance of pre-conquest cultures contributed to the population explosion by resulting in the abandonment of traditional mechanisms of population control in several cases. 

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