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The Iberian Pig in Spain and the Americas at the time of Columbus

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Looking back at the year 1492, and with all due respect to Christopher Columbus, we might well consider it the year of the Iberian pig. Precisely at this time the conflicts between the Jews, Moslems, and Christians of Spain find an important manifestation in the question of swine. The two pig-abstaining cultures of Iberia suffered terrible defeats: the Jews were expelled, and the Moslem kingdoms were permanently overthrown. In that same year Columbus inadvertently discovered the New World, a world, we should note, that comprised two continents that had never even seen the pig, or any other European livestock for that matter. On his second voyage, Columbus brought along pigs from the Canary Islands to the Antilles, beginning the famous conquest of the Americas, both Spanish and porcine.[1]

The entrance of Iberian pigs and other European livestock after the Encounter began possibly the greatest food exchange in the history of the world. Plants and animals (including disease microbes) isolated on opposite sides of the ocean for tens of thousands of years were in short order transferred from one continent to the other. Alfred W. Crosby has written that: “If the Europeans had arrived in the New World and Australasia with twentieth-century technology in hand, but no animals, they would not have made as great a change as they did by arriving with horses, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, asses, chickens, cats, and so forth.”[2] Animals, more than technology, transformed the Americas.

One of the most voracious and important species to enter the New World was undoubtedly the Iberian pig, which entered a continent that for the most part had lacked large domesticated animals.[3] But why did this pig travel to the Americas so soon, on just the second ship leaving Spain? It is the goal of this study to examine that question by looking at the antecedents of the pig culture in fifteenth-century Spain, and further explore the resulting introduction of the Iberian pig into the unprepared American continents.

By any account, the Iberian pig is not a famous animal in the Americas. No battle was one or lost because of the presence of a peculiarly brave or agile porker. No babies were rescued from blazing buildings by valiant hogs. In fact, pigs shrewdly avoid trouble as best they can. Yet it is clear that the pig has been present in some way (often, it is true, in the form of dried salt pork) through each major exploration of the New World by Spanish conquistadors. At times these hogs even outpaced the Europeans in discovering new territory. It may be difficult for modern readers to imagine that the fat, slow, industrialized pig we are familiar with today could achieve this. However, it should be understood that the Iberian pig introduced by the Spanish was quite a different breed: sturdy, swift, self-sufficient, and smart, with hair and tusks more like a boar than a twenty-first-century commercial hog.[4] And though these animals have left us no recorded heroes, the earliest pioneering pigs have a legacy that lives on to the present day.

Surprisingly, the Iberian pig is not the subject of any book about the Americas. This is a rather different attitude than we might find in the pig’s homeland of Spain. There, on the contrary, many books have been written about hogs, and there are countless popular sayings involving cerdo, puerco, cochino, lechón, jabalí, and the many unique synonyms for pig present in local vernaculars. Only a few scholars, and just a handful of articles, have written about the pig in America.[5] And while the arrival of horses, cattle, and even dogs to the New World are treated with great importance, the pig has been considered a secondary theme, sometimes— but certainly not always— appended or footnoted to works concerning these other, seemingly more important animals.

In its apparent insignificance, however, lies the pig’s historical strength. Herded behind the Spaniards nearly everywhere they ventured, the study of the Iberian pig uniquely situates itself as a manner in which to witness the evolution of the European encounter with the New World. It will be the argument of this paper that the pig played a vital role in the conquest and colonization of the Americas. And what is more, these ubiquitous hogs were conquistadors themselves, both destructive and beneficial to the lands and peoples they encountered. Yet perhaps the droves of hogs were so ordinary, so ever present, that they have been passed over through history simply because their presence was too obvious to need much mention. This paper hopes to rectify this view, considering the diverse and essential purposes hogs fulfilled in the first century after Columbus, as well as attempting to explain why the pig’s role has been disregarded by chroniclers, and subsequently by many modern historians.

Our journey into the pig’s role in the Americas will begin just as their journey did, with the second voyage of Christopher Columbus who, according to Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, escorted the first eight pigs to the New World.[6] We will consider first-hand accounts of the conquest and expeditions into the Americas, as well as chronicles and histories written in the first century after the fact. Both will offer glimpses into the pig’s story. Much of this tale, we must realize, is left out of our records. For this reason, the primary source materials presented here are broad in both time and space: they cover the greater part of the sixteenth century, and extend from the islands of the Antilles to mainland Mexico, Central America, and into Peru. While particular conditions varied, the juxtaposition of such sources is meant only to illustrate patterns of the Spanish conquest, and some indulgence is required of the reader on this point.

As one might expect, the principal reason for raising hogs was nutritional. Even more valuable than its hams, however, was the pig’s fat. It could be used as cooking oil, but also in the production of soap, candles, and even helped in fighting disease. Pork and its derivatives in large part helped feed the newly arriving colonizers, as well as the many Indians fallen under Spanish control.

The group most indebted to the pig, however, was undoubtedly the Spanish explorers of the sixteenth century.[7] Hernán Cortés, conqueror of the Aztec empire, relied almost entirely on supplies of pigs when he set out from Cuba in 1519. In a similar fashion Francisco Pizarro would follow suit in his conquest of the Incan empire, and a few years later his brother Gonzalo Pizarro capitalized on the fecundity of pigs to outfit an even larger assemblage in search of cinnamon in the Amazon. But the best documented example of pigs in exploration comes from Hernando de Soto, who explored what is today the southeastern United States, and is still considered the father of the American pork industry.[8]

Before venturing further, however, it will be helpful to put into context the importance of the pig in Spanish life at the dawn of Columbus’ encounter with the New World. Pig has a history in Spain that predates antiquity. Whether feasting on wild boar, domesticating and breeding select species, or preserving their meat as jamón, the connection has always been strong. But it is in the fifteenth century, during the time of the Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella, that the pig’s importance is most tellingly revealed.

Continued >> Chapter 1: Pigs in the Old World


[1] Bartolomé de las Casas, Historia de las Indias (Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1986), vol. 1, p. 83 & 366. To be completely accurate, pigs were carried on the first voyage too, but only in the form of lard and dried meat. See Antonio Tejera Gaspar, Los cuatro viajes de Colón y las islas Canarias (La Laguna: Francisco Lemus Editor, 2000), p. 64.

[2] Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., Ecological Imperialism, 2 ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 173.

[3] The Americas were not completely bereft of large domesticated animals of course. Notable exceptions are the llama and the alpaca, camelids of the Andes mountains in South America, as well as a small species of dog that did not bark, the guinea pig, and fowl, including the muscovy duck and the large turkeys of North America. The bison in the American plains was similar in many respects to the cow, but it was never domesticated on any wide scale.

[4] Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport: Greenwood, 1972), p. 77.

[5] The two most notable scholars who have devoted monographs to the pig include David E. Vassberg and Justo L. del Río Moreno. An exceptional volume about many of the Spanish animals brought to the Americas, including extensive information about the pig, can also be found in Eduardo Laguana Sanz’s El ganado español. Surprisingly, a children’s book about the pigs’ arrival in the Americas was written by Laura Fischetto. See bibliography.

[6] Casas, book I, chap. LXXXIII, p. 366.

[7] Deb Bennett and Robert S. Hoffmann, “Ranching in the New World,” in Seeds of Change, ed. Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), p. 102.

[8] Missouri Agricultural Statistics Service, “7000 Years of Pork Domestication,” 4 Dec 2003 <>.

© 2005 by b.z.