What We Eat: The Story of Livestock in America - #104

BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

 BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the America’s for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When Columbus arrived in the Caribbean he entered a world with almost no domesticated animals.  No cattle, no horses, no pigs. In the entire Western Hemisphere, there were only four domesticated mammals and two domesticated fowl.

BURT WOLF: Columbus made a note in his diary reporting that he had not seen any sheep or goats or any other beasts. And though he’d only been there a half a day he certainly would have seen them if they were there.  He did see dogs that never barked and noted that all the trees were as different from those in Spain as night from day, and so were the fruits and the rocks and all things.

The llama, the alpaca, the guinea pig and the Muscovy duck lived in South America. Turkeys could be found in parts of Mexico.  But only the dog was widespread.

And that was it.  No large animals to ride or help with the farming.  The New World was filled with wild game and fish, but it was the domesticated animals of Europe that changed the way people ate, how they lived and traveled, and even the very surface of the land itself. In the spring of 1493 Columbus made his triumphant return to Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella appointed him to start a mining company and an agricultural colony on the island of Hispaniola.  These days that island is known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

In May of that year he set sail from Spain.  Instead of just the Nina, and the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, he now had 17 ships, 1200 men, 10 mares, 24 stallions, burros, sheep and a full complement of cattle and pigs.  The animals did well on Hispaniola because the local diseases did not affect them, there was an unlimited amount of feed, and few predators.  They reproduced at an extraordinary rate and within 10 years they had taken up residence on most of the Caribbean islands.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Strangely enough, the first colony in the Caribbean was considered a failure because the explorers didn’t find any gold. But the domesticated livestock that they brought in ended up insuring the success of all future Spanish colonies in the Americas.

BURT WOLF: The domestication of animals began about 10,000 years ago with the reindeer and the dog.  It wasn't until someone decided to stay put, grow crops and live in one place that animals were bred in captivity and put to use.  Most people assume that we domesticated animals for economic reasons - cattle as a source of meat and milk; sheep as a source of wool.  But that may not actually be the case.

DANIEL GADE ON CAMERA: If you go back to the archaeological record, on some of these animals, you realize that they had very important cultic, religious associations.  So that, for example, the cattle.  Cattle were very strongly associated in their early stages of domestication with the lunar goddess cult, because of the lunar or moon-like arrangement of their horns, and so they became symbolic for the cult purposes, and as a result of that then they were bred in captivity, as a way of getting more animals for the cult.


BURT WOLF: Southern Spain was the only place in Europe where open range cattle ranching on horseback was a tradition.   Herding on horseback, branding cattle and driving beef to market were all developed during the Middle Ages by Spanish cattlemen.

The huge open rangelands in the Americas were just what the Spaniards understood, and they covered them with their cattle and horses.  In a world with few natural predators and an endless food supply, their livestock multiplied at rates unimaginable in Europe.

The Spanish produced breeding herds in the Caribbean and Mexico, and by 1565, on ranches in Florida. Scottish Highlanders and black slaves from West Africa set up open cattle ranges in the Low Country of South Carolina. The low country farmers kept the cattle penned in-in small common pastures. They herded the animals on foot, using rawhide whips and dogs.  In fact, the word, "cowboy" is the British word for a cattle herder. 

DANIEL GADE ON CAMERA: Remember that song, "get along, little doggie?"


DANIEL GADE ON CAMERA: Well, that word doggie is believed to have come from West Africa. In Texas, it's used as a name for a small orphaned calf or a steer.  That's what that word doggie means.  Its origin goes back to the Carolina low country, and then ultimately to West Africa, because that is a word that means, in the Bambara language, of West Africa, small.  So that was brought to the New World, and then to Texas, where it was used also.

BURT WOLF: Throughout the history of raising cattle most people weren’t concerned with owning the land, they just needed to use the grass on the land. The right to graze was the important thing.  In northern England grazing land was not owned by individuals - it was set up as a common public area.  The English carried that practice to the new world and in 1634 laid out the Boston Commons for pasturing cattle.

Following the Civil War, some cattle owners had thousands of animals, but not one acre of land.  In fact, in the western U.S. today, most ranching is done on public lands.

With the cattle came the plow, a tool unknown in the Americas.  Farmers in the Middle East and Europe had used the plow since its invention in Mesopotamia some 5,000 years ago. It  was pulled by oxen and allowed farmers to cultivate huge areas of land. 

By contrast, the Native Americans used a digging stick for farming.  It was an efficient tool for planting small plots of corn or beans but it was useless to turn over the matted, grassy sod of the plains. 

ALFRED CROSBY ON CAMERA: American Indians developed some very high civilizations but they simply didn't have a power source. They didn't have gigantic animals to pull and haul things all around.  And  Peru and the Andean civilization that we think of as being the Incan civilization.  They had a llama but you cannot ride a llama.  And llamas are very unhappy if you try to pack more than a 100 pounds on them.  In the Mesoamerican civilization the Aztecs, and the Mixtecs and all those people when they wanted to move anything a hundred miles, they packed it on somebody's back, and the person took off with it. 

BURT WOLF: Bringing both cattle and the plow to the western hemisphere dramatically altered the landscape and the diet of the Americas.  The oxen were strong enough to pull an iron plow across the plains. The plow transformed the grasslands into fields of wheat and corn. The cattle converted unfarmed grasslands into meat and milk. Native Americans had no animals that gave them this kind of protein.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In South America, cattle ranching was essential to the colonial expansion.  The enormous amount of beef that came from the ranches made it easier for the Spanish and their workers to concentrate on getting the silver out of the mines.  They weren’t concerned about a dependable food supply.  They never asked, “Where’s the beef?”  They knew it was just down the road.

BURT WOLF: Cattle ranching was perfect for the self-image that Americans were building. A cattle rancher was an entrepreneur, open to new technologies, attracted by upward social mobility, challenged to make life more efficient.  The cowboy, free and independent, became an icon in American folklore. But he picked up his vocabulary and his style -- everything from bronco to rodeo -- from the Spanish. The cowboy that John Wayne made part of American culture, turns out to have been imported from Spain, the Scottish Highlands and West Africa.

Today Bud Adams is raising cattle on the same Florida grasslands where North American ranching began almost 500 years ago.

BUD ADAMS ON CAMERA: We’ve raised these Braford cattle here now for about 50 years.  And about ten years ago we began to evaluate our business and try to determine what kind of cattle would produce the meat that the public would desire in the year 2000.  So, in the early 1990s we produced hybrids. And these hybrids, we can tailor make ‘em to provide a more marbling or a little more red meat. And so as the quality of the beef is improved, why the consumption of beef has gone up.


BURT WOLF: It is one of those inexplicable twists of fate that sent the Spanish to conquer the Americas. They were the only people likely to show up with horses and of all the animals imported into the Americas the horse was the essential element in Spain’s conquest. For over 700 years, parts of Spain were under the control of the Moors who had come across the Mediterranean from North Africa. They were some of the most skilled horsemen in the world and they passed on their equestrian knowledge to the Spanish.

By 1492, the horse had become part of daily life in Spain and Portugal — and that held for all levels of society—not just the nobles. Horses were easy to get, inexpensive and the most efficient mode of transportation known to Europeans, which is why they were part of the cargo during Columbus’s second voyage.

DANIEL GADE ON CAMERA: You could go to the coast in your ship, but then you have to find a way to move up into the highlands in both those cases, Mexico and Peru, and so this is where the horse came into play.  It provided that mobility.  So that was one thing.  Another thing was that a mounted horseman, could sweep down on a foot soldier with great efficiency and speed, and discombobulate that foot soldier so much that it left him vulnerable to being killed.  So it was a very efficient way to kill the Indians. Thirdly, there was a psychological advantage here of having a horse, because native people of the New World had never seen an animal like that.  And so to them, this was some kind of a mythic, supernatural being.

BURT WOLF: The natives of the Caribbean thought that a horse’s favorite food was a Caribbean native. And the Indians of Chile were terrified of the Spanish horses —they believed that the horse and its rider were one animal. The horse changed the battle odds.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The horse first evolved in the Americas, about 55 million years ago, and existed continuously since then in the wild, until about 8 to10,000 years ago when they disappeared and nobody really knows why.  They were reintroduced into the western hemisphere by the Spanish conquistadors who brought them to the Caribbean and Mexico.  Now some of those horses escaped and went back to the wild. And by the time the Spanish got to Argentina there were hundreds of thousands of wild horses covering the grasslands.

BURT WOLF: Contemporary accounts from the 1600s claim that there were so many wild horses in the Americas that when a herd crossed a road it was necessary for travelers to wait an entire day or more.  If they didn’t, the wild horses would carry off the tame stock.

By the end of the 1500s, horses were grazing throughout the Western hemisphere — everyone, including the Native Americans, were "saddling up". If you could catch a wild horse you could own one.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In North America there were many wild horses and the only visible connection between them and human beings was often a collar that hung around their neck with a hook.  And when they’d try to jump a fence to get to the crops the hook would hold them back.  In our early Colonial period, fences were used primarily not to keep livestock in, but to keep wild animals out.

BURT WOLF: Early settlers tend to live on isolated farms —they had to travel large distances for everyday needs. Being able to have your own horse in exchange for the simple act of catching it was a great gift to the frontiersman. The horse became the common carrier for the common man. There were more horses both wild and tame in the western hemisphere than anywhere else in the world. Their numbers shaped early European societies in the Americas more firmly and more permanently than the discovery of gold.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: European settlers changed the balance of nature in the western hemisphere. The greatest impact came from the livestock. They ate all the plants and destroyed the root structure.  Then the farmers came along with the oxen, plowed up all the protective ground cover.

They ended up with huge tracks of land covered with weeds and coarse grass.

BURT WOLF: As early as the1580s, overgrazing in Mexico was apparent. Cattle were starving in certain areas. Scrub palms took over the open grasslands. When the riches of the grasslands were gone, the increase in herds slowed and in some cases stopped completely. The history is best known in Mexico, but evidence suggests that during the 16th and 17th centuries similar problems occurred throughout the Americas. 


BURT WOLF: The pig was first domesticated from the wild boar in Southwest Asia about 10,000 years ago. They have been raised in Spain and Portugal for at least 2,000 years. After the bull, the pig is Spain's favorite cult animal.

To a great extent the pig's special place in Spanish society comes from its role as a symbol of Christian resistance.  For over 700 years, Muslims occupied Spain, beginning in 711 and ending with their expulsion in 1492. Christians ate pork. Muslims didn't.  Eating pork was a way for Spanish Christians to assert their identity.  The enormous selection of pork products in Spanish cuisine reflects this historical importance.

Hundreds of different sausages, suckling pigs, dried and cured ham.

In rural America the pig was a poor man's bank.  The farmer could bank on the fact that the little piglet he bought in the spring would be large enough to butcher in late autumn and feed his family during the winter. The remaining pork meat earned enough money to purchase another piglet for the spring, which continued the cycle.  This may have been where wee got the idea of the Piggy Bank.

DANIEL GADE ON CAMERA: There were some domesticated animals here in the Americas, but in fact, most people didn't have much protein.  And so one can argue that the introduction of all of this livestock across the ocean benefited not just the Spanish colonists or the American colonists, the Europeans, but also the native people, and so this you can say enhanced their health, because the human body gets its protein, most efficiently through animal protein. 

The other thing here is food security.  Livestock on a farm presents an alternative, so that if you're a farmer whose crop is attacked by insect pests, or drought, you can depend then on the livestock that you've got.  Selling them in the market for cash, or slaughtering them and eating them.  So that was a form of food security, that I think also has to be seen here as an advantage of the introduction of livestock to the New World.


BURT WOLF: In the Americas, pork was popular from the beginning.  Marooned sailors, pirates and castaways living on the northern beaches of  the island of Hispaniola used a native cooking technique, which consisted of a grating of green twigs, placed over a pit of burning wood that had been dug into the sand.  Their pork was cooked on top.  The grating was called a boucan, and the men who used it were called buccaneers.  Their life style gave us the word buccaneer and their cooking technique gave us the word barbeque.

CHRIS SCHLESINGER ON CAMERA: The differences in barbeque - let’s start with North Carolina - where they’re primarily known for shredded pork right?  In the eastern part of the state with a little vinegar - in the western part of the state with a little tomato sauce.  Then we go down to Memphis where we still have the shredded pork and we start picking up some ribs and then we come up to Kansas City where we kind of leave the shredded pork, we stay with the ribs and we pick up some beef brisket and then down to Texas where it’s primarily beef brisket.  So it’s a little “s” that starts with pork and ends with brisket.

BURT WOLF: During our colonial period southern hospitality was more about barbecuing pork than serving tea.  Farmers raised as many pigs as they could because pigs took very little time away from their main crops of cotton and tobacco.

But eventually beef started to replace pork as the meat of choice. In Europe, steak was expensive—a sign of wealth. Successful immigrants to America ordered strip steak over pork chops as proof of their new status.  Beef was also touted as a healthy food. 

Because of successful cattle ranching, steaks, filets, ribs, roasts and stews, all became an inexpensive part of the daily diet .  Beef also fit into the American concept of efficient food preparation.  A chopped beef patty cooks in minutes.  Hamburgers became an American phenomenon.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: By 1600s one of the least expensive foods in the Americas was meat. The Spanish colonists probably ate more meat than any other group in the world. For over 500 years Europeans in the Americas have been the best-fed people, a fact that has led more people to immigrate here than all of the religious and ideological forces combined.  For What We Eat, I'm Burt Wolf.