The Columbian exchange (this is the correct spelling) transferred a diverse set of crops and livestock animals between the Old and New Worlds. However, I have begun to wonder if there were any crops and animals that were common to both.

Wikipedia provides a wealth of information on the subject of the Columbian exchange, but it only describes what was transferred, with no mention of common crops or livestock to the two regions. Likewise, just Googling anything including the term "Columbian Exchange", as well as variations like "Columbian Exchange common crops" and even "columbian exchange -maize", gave me a lot of information on what was exchanged, but very little on things that were not exchanged, and I have found nothing on common crops and livestock animals.

Were there any crops and livestock common to both the Old and New Worlds, or were all crops and livestock novel to the region opposing their region of origin?

  • 6
    If Polynesia and/or New Guinea count as "Old World", then Sweet Potatoes would be a candidate. They are native to the Americas, but spread to those places via a preColombian Exchange. I'm pretty sure they were unknown to the the Eurasian landmass in 1491 though.
    – T.E.D.
    May 22, 2021 at 2:51
  • 2
    Do you mean same species domesticated in both hemispheres independently? (with 'no exchange' meaning 'not humans bringing them over', but fining them in situ and working with them?) The 'same species' (not similar name (ahm, like "corn"?)) should be emphasized ? May 22, 2021 at 11:37
  • I'm not quite prepared to prove it, camels should be on the list except for the fact they were slaughtered to the last in the new world.
    – Joshua
    May 22, 2021 at 15:04
  • 1
    @T.E.D.: Not sure about the rest of Polynesia (it happened much earlier I just don't know how much) but upper New Guinea got sweet potatoes in the 1940s. Until then they farmed taro.
    – Joshua
    May 22, 2021 at 15:06
  • Do they have to be domesticated? I would imagine, for example, that there are many species of fish (specifically salt-water, as fresh-water fish are more likely to be geographically limited) and other marine life that were consumed on both sides of the Atlantic going back to long before the Columbian exchange. Seaweed would also count. But neither of these would be considered domesticated necessarily. May 24, 2021 at 18:10

6 Answers 6



As far as crops are concerned, I would say that Cotton is certainly one of the best candidates. Although the species are different, in both the old and the new world, different civilizations have been cultivating cotton for several millennia. History of cotton

As reported in the article linked, Christopher Columbus, in his explorations of the Bahamas and Cuba, found natives wearing cotton, a fact that may have contributed to his incorrect belief that he had landed on the coast of India.


The beans, although of different species, were grown both in the old and in the new world and were an important source of protein throughout history.

Wild Species

in the list of foods there are also species that are not properly cultivated but that in some way were consumed both in the old and in the new world.

For example strawberries were harvested for medicinal use since Ancient Rome and, in later times, cultivated in small gardens in Europe. Charles V, France's king from 1364 to 1380, had 1,200 strawberry plants in his royal garden.

Wild rice is another one. Native Americans harvest wild rice by canoeing into a stand of plants. Several Native American cultures, such as the Ojibwa, consider wild rice to be a sacred component in their culture. ‎‎‎‎‎ ‎‎‎‎‎

  • 1
    Came here to say this (cotton). Just realized this one myself last week.
    – T.E.D.
    May 21, 2021 at 16:53
  • 1
    Another one you could add is gourds/squashes, of which there are Old and New World cultivated varieties.
    – Meir
    May 21, 2021 at 18:26
  • 1
    Strawberries weren't domesticated until long after 1492.
    – T.E.D.
    May 21, 2021 at 18:40
  • 14
    It is a stretch calling some of these the same. For example, Old World rice is not even the same genus as New World Wild Rice. Likewise the Old and New World gourds are different genera. In both cases they are the same tribe, thus making them about as closely related as wheat and rye or barley.
    – Mark Olson
    May 22, 2021 at 0:24
  • 8
    @MarkOlson - I'd go so far as to say that if your two species of plant aren't closer related than rye is to barley, they shouldn't be considered the same crop at all. Rye and barley are completely different crops.
    – T.E.D.
    May 22, 2021 at 3:17

Dogs were common to both the Americas and the old world, since at least some of the prehistoric ancestors of American Indians brought dogs with them from Asia.

The plains Indians used travois pulled by horses to transport their goods. And before they had horses acquired from Euorpeans they used dogs to pull travois with much lighter loads.

I think that you should also try to find out whether any domesticated chicken species existed in both the old world and the new world before the Columbian exchange. I think that chickens have been used as an argument in favor of hyppothetical pre Columbian contacts.

  • 1
    There are a number of animal species (or close relatives) common to Northern Europe and North America (many birds, deer/elk, etc.). Not domesticated livestock per se.
    – Jon Custer
    May 21, 2021 at 16:41
  • 11
    This paper gives DNA evidence that chickens were introduced to the Americas from Polynesia pre-Columbus. May 21, 2021 at 22:42
  • 1
    @GorttheRobot - That took me on an interesting journey. It looks like there were 2007 DNA findings indicating this connection which have been refuted. However, the radiocarbon dates have not, which means it looks like that chicken was pre-Columbian. While the DNA evidence for it fell through, a Polynesian origin is still far and away the most sensible theory. The Araucana breed appears to be its descendant. That's a chicken used by a fairly remote Andean tribe. There's no evidence anyone else in the Americas had chickens in 1491.
    – T.E.D.
    May 22, 2021 at 3:08
  • 1
    ...brining this back to the final "?" sentence in the question, effectively the New World didn't really have chickens in 1491. However, this one isolated Chilean culture did.
    – T.E.D.
    May 22, 2021 at 3:23
  • Horses (Equus ferus caballus) were not introduced to America until 1493. Dec 8, 2023 at 12:55

Barley is another example. Barley of the Old World and the Little barley of the New World are different species but the same genus, hordeum. From the abstract in

N. Mueller et al. "Growing the lost crops of eastern North America’s original agricultural system." Nature Plants, 2017, vol. 3.

Thousands of years before the maize-based agriculture practiced by many Native American societies in eastern North America at the time of contact with Europeans, there existed a unique crop system only known through archaeological evidence. There are no written or oral records of how these lost crops were cultivated, but several domesticated subspecies have been identified in the archaeological record. Growth experiments and observations of living progenitors of these crops can provide insights into the ancient agricultural system of eastern North America, the role of developmental plasticity in the process of domestication, and the creation and maintenance of diverse landraces under cultivation. In addition, experimental gardens are potent tools for public education, and can also be used to conserve remaining populations of lost crop progenitors and explore the possibility of re-domesticating these species.

Little barley is given as one of the examples of these crops (page 1 of the paper).

  • 6
    This one's kinda iffy. It looks like, while it was harvested, they aren't certain "little barley" was ever domesticated, and it doesn't appear to be now. Its not nearly as useful a plant as (true) barley. They really aren't the same plant at all.
    – T.E.D.
    May 22, 2021 at 2:48

Reindeer/caribou (Rangifer tarandus) have been herded by Arctic peoples since time immemorial. They are herded rather than farmed. The conditions in the far north require that the herds migrate, so a sedentary/farming lifestyle based on reindeer/caribou can't work, and the degree of domestication is minimal. They are used for meat, skins and labour, humans play a role in gathering, protecting and controlling the herd, and so they qualify as "livestock".

Wikipedia notes peoples in both the Eurasian and American Arctic lead, or have led, nomadic lifestyles based around the Reindeer:

Arctic peoples have depended on caribou for food, clothing, and shelter, such as the Caribou Inuit, the inland-dwelling Inuit of the Kivalliq Region in northern Canada, the Caribou Clan in Yukon, the Inupiat, the Inuvialuit, the Hän, the Northern Tutchone, and the Gwich'in (who followed the Porcupine caribou for millennia) [These are North Americans]. Hunting wild reindeer and herding of semi-domesticated reindeer are important to several Arctic and sub-Arctic peoples such as the Duhalar [Monglia] for meat, hides, antlers, milk, and transportation. The Sami people (Sápmi) [Scandinavia] have also depended on reindeer herding and fishing for centuries. In Sápmi, reindeer are used to pull a pulk,ba Nordic sled.

  • 2
    "Followed" does not mean domesticated. Reindeer herders do not just follow reindeer herds, they actually control their movements. As far as I know, until 20th century native americans didn't herd caribou, didn't mark them as a property, didn't use them for labor, only hunted them. If you have sources about native caribou domestication I would be glad to see them.
    – OON
    May 27, 2021 at 11:03
  • @OON this runs into native american and first nation concepts of "ownership" The Gwich'in sentiment is ""We are the caribou people. Caribou are not just what we eat; they are who we are. They are in our stories and songs and the whole way we see the world. Caribou are our life. Without caribou we wouldn't exist." The Gwich'in constantly interact with the caribou, modifying their behaviour and the caribou's behaviour. From the Gwich'in perspective, the caribou are part of the nation, or they are part of the herd, English doesn't suffice to express this relationship.
    – James K
    Oct 25, 2021 at 21:51

The only certain plant that is known to have been domesticated in both the Americas and Old World is the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). It is native to South or Central America and was first domesticated there in c. 3,000 BCE. The plant is also found from c. 1210-1400 in the Cook Islands, via Polynesian transportation. It's definitely a crop.

The only certain animal species is the wolf (Canis lupus), c. 23,000 BCE in Eurasia, the subspecies Canis lupus familiaris crossing from Siberia to Alaska ~3,000 years later, accompanying humans. This may be considered livestock as dogs were consumed for meat by some American peoples, but I'm not certain if these dogs were Canis lupus familiaris or some other domestic canid.

One could also include the caribou/reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), depending on one's definition of "domesticated". Domestication by Arctic peoples of Eurasian subspecies has occurred multiple times over the millennia. North American subspecies have at least been used by Arctic peoples, though I cannot say if this counts as domestication, semi-domestication, or neither out of concern for not being Eurocentric. Eurasian subspecies were and are kept as livestock, but American ones possibly not.

I believe every other example given here of mutually domesticated species so far is either dubious or a separate species.


The Solanum family might be an interesting contender...

In the Americas, they yielded tomatoes, potatoes and chili peppers (red hot or otherwise).

In Asia they yielded the eggplant (aubergine), but in Europe the solanaceae were best known for the Deadly Nightshade.

Which probably explains why many 16th century Europeans thought the potato was evil (3rd para) when it was first introduced. As were tomatoes...

  • This does not answer really the question, IMO. May 26, 2021 at 5:11
  • Rewan Demontay: I don't understand your objections. Please explain.
    – ttonon
    May 27, 2021 at 4:18
  • @ttonon : Rewan has a fair point, in that while the family had a global distribution, no single species was common to both. This points to a global distribution in the distant past rather than the recent (human-era) past. I just found it interesting or amusing that a European reaction to the American crops was conditioned by their resemblance to nightshades. (Does that justify several downvotes? Not for me to say) May 27, 2021 at 11:53
  • @User, you make a valid point, but for that we have to include your specification of "single species." However, the original question asks about "crops" and "livestock," which are much broader terms. There are many crop and livestock species within a given genus or family, and I think it's worth pointing out to those who are unaware that for instance families of vegetables span continents.
    – ttonon
    Jun 4, 2021 at 17:19

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