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WI: Spirulina added to the Columbian Exchange

SinghSong

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Historically, Spirulina was one of the primary food sources for the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans, who called it tecuitlatl since antiquity up until the 16th century; its harvest from Lake Texcoco in Mexico, where it can still be found in abundance, and its subsequent sale as cakes were described by one of Cortés' soldiers in 1520. However, no further references to its use by the Aztecs as a daily food source were made, with this largely attributed to the Conquistadors perceiving it to be beneath their notice, along with the draining of the surrounding lakes for the agriculture of introduced Old World Crops, and increased colonial settlement.

The topic of tecuitlatl was not mentioned again until 1940, when the Belgian phycologist Pierre Dangeard mentioned a cake called dihe consumed by the Kanembu tribe, who harvest it from small lakes and ponds around Lake Chad in Africa, and use it to make broths for meals, as well as selling it in their markets. Dangeard studied the dihe samples and found it to be a dried puree of the spring form of the blue-green algae from the lake. During 1964 and 1965, the botanist Jean Leonard confirmed that dihe was made up of spirulina, and later studied a bloom of algae in a sodium hydroxide production facility.

As a result, the first systematic and detailed study of the growth requirements and physiology of spirulina was performed as a basis for establishing large-scale production, which began in the 1970s. And since then, its cultivation and consumption worldwide has skyrocketed, with spirulina hailed as an ecologically sound, nutrient, vitamin, mineral and protein-rich dietary supplement, with perhaps the greatest potential to address food security and malnutrition, and to provide dietary support in long-term space flight or Mars missions.

So then, here's the question- what if a few of the Conquistadores had actually given tecuitlatl a taste, liked it, and decided to try and bring it back with them to cultivate back home, adding it to the list of New World crops brought back from Mexico to the Old World early on as part of the Columbian Exchange? Where would spirulina cultivation and consumption be most likely to take off, and how much of an impact, at maximum, might its earlier and more widespread production conceivably have had on world history?
 

rfmcdonald

Active member
Hmm. Is there any reason why it was overlooked OTL? It would have been a more novel crop to Europeans than others, which were at least familiar land-based plants.

Perhaps it might find a home in watery European places. The Low Countries, maybe?
 

SinghSong

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Hmm. Is there any reason why it was overlooked OTL? It would have been a more novel crop to Europeans than others, which were at least familiar land-based plants.

Perhaps it might find a home in watery European places. The Low Countries, maybe?
Think the main reason is that it was looked down upon, on account of how different, novel and alien it was from a European perspective. The places where it would've been most advantageous, though, would've been in drier places, rather than the Low Countries. Spirulina thrives in hot desert regions, and doesn't need fresh water to grow, preferring brackish and salt-water- naturally living in lakes and ponds rich in salt and bicarbonate of soda, with a high PH close to 10, with both brine shrimps and flamingos having evolved to specialize in eating it. A daily consumption of fifty grams of fresh spirulina, or about 10 grams of dry spirulina, is recommended- which only requires 1m² of cultivation basin per person (making it arguably the most space-efficient crop to harvest, easily compact enough to fit said cultivation basins inside the walls of a fort/castle and feed a full garrison- how radically might the dynamic of siege warfare change as a result?). And it also has useful anti-toxic properties which have been shown to counteract the effects of poisoning (incl. arsenic, fluoride, iron, lead and mercury poisoning) from contaminated drinking water (which was a far greater issue historically).

So ironically enough, the place in Europe which could've benefited most from bringing Spirulina back from the New World was Spain- the first place it would've been brought back to. Though it's also worth mentioning that there actually is a variety of wild Spirulina native to Western Europe, having been discovered recently in the large brine lagoons/'étangs' of the Camargue (situated in Western Europe's largest river delta, in close vicinity to the historical French city of Arles). So technically, any historical civilization in this region, going back as far as 800BC (the Ligurians, Phoenicians, Ancient Romans, Gauls, Visigoths, Andalusians or Franks) could have independently discovered and started cultivating it themselves; they just never did. At least, not IOTL anyway- though if we were going with a different, earlier POD...
 
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