Population history of American indigenous peoples
2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: North American History
Millions of indigenous people lived in the Americas when the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus began a historical period of large-scale European contact with the Americas. European contact with what they called the " New World" led to the European colonization of the Americas, with millions of emigrants (willing and unwilling) from the " Old World" eventually resettling in the Americas. While the population of Old World peoples in the Americas steadily grew in the centuries after Columbus, the population of the American indigenous peoples plummeted. The extent and causes of this population decline have long been the subject of controversy and debate. The 500th anniversary in 1992 of Columbus's famous voyage drew renewed attention to claims that indigenous peoples of the Americas had been the victims of ethnocides (the destruction of a culture).
Estimates of how many people were living in the Americas when Columbus arrived have varied tremendously; 20th century scholarly estimates ranged from a low of 8.4 million to a high of 112.5 million persons. Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, precise pre-Columbian population figures are impossible to obtain, and estimates are often produced by extrapolation from comparatively small bits of data. In 1976, geographer William Denevan used these various estimates to derive a "consensus count" of about 54 million people, although some recent estimates are lower than that. On an estimate of approximately 50 million people in 1492 (including 25 million in the Aztec Empire and 12 million in the Inca Empire), the lowest estimates give a death toll of 80% at the end of the 16th century (8 million people in 1650). Latin America would only reattain this level at the turn of the 20th century, with 17 million in 1800; 30 million in 1850; 61 million in 1900; 105 million in 1930; 218 million in 1960; 361 million in 1980, and 563 million in 2005. In the last thirty years of the 16th century, the Mexican population highly decreased to attain the low level of one million people in 1600. The Maya population is today estimated at 6 million, which is the same level as at the end of the 15th century. In what is now Brazil, the indigenous population has declined from a pre-Columbian high of an estimated 4 million to some 300,000.
Historian David Henige has argued that many population figures are the result of arbitrary formulas selectively applied to numbers from unreliable historical sources, a deficiency he sees as being unrecognized by several contributors to the field. He believes there is not enough solid evidence to produce population numbers that have any real meaning, and characterizes the modern trend of high estimates as " pseudo-scientific number-crunching." Henige does not advocate a low population estimate; rather, he argues that the scanty and unreliable nature of the evidence renders broad estimates suspect, and that "high counters" (as he calls them) have been particularly flagrant in their misuse of sources. Although Henige's criticisms are directed against some specific instances, other studies do generally acknowledge the inherent difficulties in producing reliable statistics given the almost complete lack of any hard data for the period in question.
This population debate has often had ideological underpinnings. Low estimates were sometimes reflective of European notions of their own cultural and racial superiority, as historian Francis Jennings has argued: "Scholarly wisdom long held that Indians were so inferior in mind and works that they could not possibly have created or sustained large populations." At the other end of the spectrum, some have argued that contemporary estimates of a high pre-Columbian indigenous population are rooted in a bias against aspects of Western civilization and/or Christianity. Robert Royal writes that "estimates of pre-Columbian population figures have become heavily politicized with scholars who are particularly critical of Europe often favoring wildly higher figures."
Since civilizations rose and fell in the Americas before Columbus arrived, the indigenous population in 1492 was not necessarily at a high point, and may have already been in decline. And Fernand Braudel has pointed out a problem that the Amerindian faced that was not a factor on other continents: "The Indian population ... suffered from a demographic weakness, particularly because of the absence of any substitute animal milk. Mothers had to nurse their children until they were three or four years old. This long period of breast-feeding severely reduced female fertility and made any demographic revival precarious." Indigenous populations in most areas of the Americas reached a low point by the early twentieth century, and in a number of cases started to climb again. In the United States, the numbers may have already recovered to pre-Columbian levels.
Anthropologists and population geneticists agree that the bulk of indigenous American ancestry can be traced to Ice Age migrations from Asia via the Bering land bridge, although the possibility of migration by watercraft along coastal routes or ice sheets is increasingly viewed as a viable complement to this model.
Depopulation from disease
The earliest European immigrants offered two principal explanations for the population decline of the American natives. The first was the brutal practices of the Spanish conquistadores, as recorded by the Spanish themselves, most notably by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, whose writings vividly depict atrocities committed on the natives (in particular the Taínos) by the Spanish. The second explanation was a perceived divine approval, in that God had removed the natives as part of His divine plan in order to make way for a new Christian civilization. Many natives of the Americas viewed their troubles in terms of religious or supernatural causes. Scholars now believe that, among the various contributing factors, epidemic disease was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the American natives.
Disease began to kill immense numbers of indigenous Americans soon after Europeans and Africans began to arrive in the New World, bringing with them the infectious diseases of the Old World. One reason this death toll was overlooked (or downplayed) is that disease, according to the widely held theory, raced ahead of European immigration in many areas, thus often killing off a sizable portion of the population before European observations (and thus written records) were made. After the epidemics had already killed massive numbers of American natives, many European immigrants who arrived assumed that the natives had always been few in number. The scope of the epidemics over the years was enormous, killing millions of people—in excess of 90% of the population in the hardest hit areas—and creating "the greatest human catastrophe in history, far exceeding even the disaster of the Black Death of medieval Europe" that killed up to one-third of the people in Europe between 1347 and 1351.
The most devastating disease was smallpox, but other deadly diseases included typhus, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, mumps, yellow fever, and pertussis (whooping cough). The Americas also had endemic diseases, perhaps including an unusually virulent type of syphilis, which soon became rampant in the Old World. (This transfer of disease between the Old and New Worlds was part of the phenomenon known as the " Columbian Exchange"). The diseases brought to the New World proved to be exceptionally deadly.
The epidemics had very different effects in different parts of the Americas. The most vulnerable groups were those with a relatively small population. Many island based groups were utterly annihilated. The Caribs and Arawaks of the Caribbean nearly ceased to exist, as did the Beothuks of Newfoundland. While disease ranged swiftly through the densely populated empires of Mesoamerica, the more scattered populations of North America saw a slower spread.
Why were the diseases so deadly?
A disease (viral or bacterial) that kills its victims before they can spread it to others tends to flare up and then die out, like a fire running out of fuel. A more resilient disease would establish an equilibrium, its victims living well beyond infection to further spread the disease. This function of the evolutionary process selects against quick lethality, with the most immediately fatal diseases being the most short-lived. A similar evolutionary pressure acts upon the victim populations, as those lacking genetic resistance to common diseases die and do not leave descendants, whereas those who are resistant procreate and pass resistant genes to their offspring.
Thus both diseases and populations tend to evolve towards an equilibrium in which the common diseases are non-symptomatic, mild, or manageably chronic. When a population that has been relatively isolated is exposed to new diseases, it has no inborn resistance to the new diseases (the population is "biologically naïve"); this body of people succumbs at a much higher rate, resulting in what is known as a "virgin soil" epidemic. Before the European arrival, the Americas had been isolated from the Eurasian-African landmass. The people of the Old World had had thousands of years to accommodate to their common diseases; the natives of the Americas faced them all at once, so that a person who successfully resisted one disease might die from another. Furthermore, multiple simultaneous infections (e.g., smallpox and typhus at the same time) or in close succession (e.g., smallpox in an individual who was still weak from a recent bout of typhus) are more deadly than just the sum of the individual diseases. In this scenario, death rates can be elevated by combinations of new and familiar diseases: smallpox in combination with American strains of syphilis or yaws, for example.
Similarly, in the fifty years following Columbus' voyage to the Americas, an unusually strong strain of syphilis killed a high proportion of infected Europeans within a few months. Over time, the disease has become much less virulent.
Other contributing factors:
- Native American medical treatments such as sweat baths and cold water immersion (practiced in some areas) weakened patients and probably increased mortality rates.
- Europeans brought so many deadly diseases with them because they had many more domesticated animals than the Native Americans. Domestication usually means close and frequent contact between animals and people, which is an opportunity for diseases of domestic animals to mutate and migrate into the human population.
- The Eurasian landmass extends many thousands of miles along an east–west axis. Climate zones also extend for thousands of miles, which facilitated the spread of agriculture, domestication of animals, and the diseases associated with domestication. The Americas extend mainly north and south, which, according to a theory popularized by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, meant that it was much harder for cultivated plant species, domesticated animals, and diseases to spread.
- One contemporary Harvard-educated Mexican epidemiologist, Rodolfo Acuña-Soto, argues that mortality due to imported diseases was compounded, or even dwarfed, by mortality due to a hemorrhagic fever native to the Americas, one which the Aztecs called cocoliztli. Acuña-Soto's research conclusions rely in part on the 50 volumes written by Francisco Hernandez, physician to Philip II of Spain, who not only interviewed survivors of the 1576 epidemic but autopsied many victims and recorded his findings and observations. The fever was apparently endemic during drought years, which coincided with the early Spanish invasion of Central America. Acuña-Soto noticed that previous historians using the same reference works that he used had chosen which accounts to base their results on, so that epidemic illnesses coinciding with the Spanish invasion could, by selectively using resources, look like accounts of European-caused smallpox rather than the Aztec-recognized cocoliztli. The disease the Aztecs described, however, when read in full described a hemorrhagic fever that had nothing in common with smallpox. Such fevers are viral, spread by rodents and bodily fluid contacts between infected people. Using evidence from 24 epidemics, Acuña-Soto concluded that the Spanish did not bring the epidemic to the Aztecs, but arrived during its onset and intensification. Acuña-Soto's theory is controversial and not widely accepted as of 2007.
One of the most contentious issues relating to disease and depopulation in the Americas concerns the degree to which American indigenous peoples were intentionally infected with diseases such as smallpox. Cook asserts that there is no evidence that the Spanish ever attempted to deliberately infect the American natives. But the cattle introduced by the Spanish polluted the water reserves dug in the fields to accumulate rain water; in response to this threat, the Franciscans and Dominicans created public fountains and aqueducts to guarantee the access to drinking water. But when the Franciscans lost their privileges in 1572, many of these fountains were not guarded any more, and deliberate well poisoning might have happened. Although no hard proof of such deliberate poisoning may be found, a correlation between the decrease of the population and the end of the control of the water by the religious orders may be observed.
1763 Smallpox outbreak at Fort Pitt
There is, however, at least one documented incident in which British soldiers in North America discussed intentionally infecting native people as part of a war effort. During Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763, a number of Native Americans launched a widespread war against British soldiers and settlers in an attempt to drive the British out of the Great Lakes region. In what is now western Pennsylvania, Native Americans (primarily Delawares) laid siege to Fort Pitt on June 22, 1763. Surrounded and isolated, William Trent, the commander of Fort Pitt gave representatives of the besieging Delawares two blankets and a handkerchief from the Pittsburgh smallpox hospital, "out of our regard to them" when the two Delaware men came to talk to him. Smallpox, which has an incubation period of twelve days from the time of initial exposure, broke out weeks later.
Given that even educated Europeans widely believed infectious diseases to be caused by bad air (the germ theory of disease wasn't accepted until the middle of the 19th century) it is doubtful that any of these soldiers would have had the knowledge necessary to successfully infect anyone. Moreover, a number of recent scholars have noted that evidence for connecting the blanket incident with the eventual smallpox outbreak is doubtful, and that the disease was more likely spread by native warriors returning from attacks on infected white settlements.
Ward Churchill's claims about the 1837 Mandan outbreak
The Investigative Committee of the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct at the University of Colorado at Boulder reviewed a claim by Ward Churchill, comparing to the cited source his claim that in 1837 the United States Army deliberately infected Mandan Indians by distributing blankets that had been exposed to smallpox, and reported "Professor Churchill therefore misrepresents what Thornton says." Most other historians who have looked at the same event disagree with Churchill's interpretation of the historical evidence, and believe no deliberate introduction of smallpox occurred at the time and place Churchill claimed it had.
Other causes of depopulation
War and violence
While epidemic disease was by far the leading cause of the population decline of the American indigenous peoples after 1492, there were other contributing factors, all of them related to European contact and colonization. One of these factors was warfare. According to demographer Russell Thornton, although many lives were lost in wars over the centuries, and war sometimes contributed to the near extinction of certain tribes, warfare and death by other violent means was a comparatively minor cause of overall native population decline.
There is some disagreement among scholars about how widespread warfare was in pre-Columbian America, but there is general agreement that war became deadlier after the arrival of the Europeans. The Europeans brought with them gunpowder and steel weapons, which made killing easier and war more deadly. Over the long run, Europeans proved to be consistently successful in achieving domination when engaged in warfare with indigenous Americans, for a variety of reasons that have long been debated. Massive death from disease certainly played a role in the European conquest, but also decisive was the European approach to war, which was less ritualistic than in native America and more focused on achieving decisive victory. European colonization also contributed to an increased number of wars between displaced native groups.
In addition, empires like the Inca depended on centralized administration for the distribution of resources. The disruption caused by the war and the colonization certainly disrupted the traditional economy and possibly led to shortages of food and materials.
Exploitation has also been cited as a cause of native American depopulation. The Spanish conquistadors divided the conquered lands among themselves and ruled as feudal lords, treating their subjects as something between slaves and serfs. Serfs stayed to work the land; slaves were exported to the mines, where large numbers of them died. Some Spaniards objected to this encomienda system, notably Bartolomé de Las Casas, who insisted that the Indians were humans with souls and rights. Largely due to his efforts, the New Laws were adopted in 1542 to protect the natives, but the abuses were not entirely or permanently abolished. The infamous Bandeirantes from Sao Paulo, adventurers mostly of mixed Portuguese and native ancestry, penetrated steadily westward in their search for Indian slaves. Serfdom existed as such in parts of Latin America well into the 19th century, past independence; it sometimes said to have existed in practice through much of the 20th century, as large numbers of landless laborers were very nearly tied to estates by semi-feudal arrangements.
Las Casas and other dissenting Spaniards from the colonial period gave vivid descriptions of the atrocities inflicted upon the natives. This has helped to create an image of the Spanish conquistadores as cruel in the extreme. However, since Las Casas's writings were polemical works, intended to provoke moral outrage in order to facilitate reform, some scholars speculate that his depictions may have been exaggerated to some degree. No mainstream scholar dismisses the idea that atrocities were widespread, but some now believe that mass killings were not a significant factor in overall native depopulation. It may be argued that the Spanish rulers in the Americas had economic reasons to be unhappy at the high mortality rate of the indigenous population, since at least some of them wanted to exploit the natives as laborers.
However, in many areas settlers and even governments did engage in what have been called "democides," usually against nomadic Indian tribes who were seen solely as hindrances to land use by European settlers. (For further discussion of democide, see the following section.) Notable democides include:
- The Tainos in the Antilles (from 80 to 90% of the population disappeared in thirty years).
- The Pequot War in early New England.
- In the mid-19th century, post-independence leader Juan Manuel de Rosas engaged in what he himself presented as a war of extermination (the " Conquest of the Desert") against the natives of the Argentinian interior.
- While some California tribes were settled on reservations, others were hunted down and massacred by 19th century American settlers.
Determining how many people died in these massacres overall is difficult. In the book The Wild Frontier: Atrocities during the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee, amateur historian William M. Osborn sought to tally every recorded atrocity in the area that would eventually become the continental United States, from early contact (1511) to the closing of the frontier (1890), and determined that 9,156 people died from atrocities perpetrated by Native Americans, and 7,193 people died from atrocities perpetrated by Europeans. Osborn defines an atrocity as the murder, torture, or mutilation of civilians, the wounded, and prisoners.
Displacement and disruption
Even more consequential than warfare or mistreatment on indigenous populations was the geographic displacement and the disruption of lifeways that resulted from the European colonization of the Americas. As more and more people arrived from the Old World, native peoples were increasingly compelled to relocate and alter their traditional ways of life. These changes often resulted in decreased birth rates, which steadily lowered populations over time. In the United States, for example, the relocations of Native Americans resulting from the policies of Indian removal and the reservation system created a disruption which resulted in fewer births and thus population decline.
The populations of many Native American peoples were reduced by the common practice of producing families with Europeans. Although many Indian cultures that once thrived are extinct today, the descendants of such peoples exist today in the bloodlines of the current inhabitants of the Americas.
A controversial question relating to the population history of American indigenous peoples is whether or not the natives of the Americas were the victims of genocide. After the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust during World War II, genocide was defined (in part) as a crime "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such."
Historian David Stannard is of the opinion that the indigenous peoples of America (including Hawaii) were the victims of a "Euro-American genocidal war." While conceding that the majority of the indigenous peoples fell victim to the ravages of European disease, he estimates that almost 100 million died in what he calls the American Holocaust. Stannard's perspective has been joined by Kirkpatrick Sale, Ben Kiernan, Lenore A. Stiffarm, and Phil Lane, Jr., among others; the perspective has been further refined by Ward Churchill, who has said that "it was precisely malice, not nature, that did the deed."
Stannard's claim of 100 million deaths has been disputed because he does not cite any demographic data to support this number, and because he makes no distinction between death from violence and death from disease. Noble David Cook considers books such as Stannard's — a number of which were released around the year 1992 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the Columbus voyage to America — to be an unproductive return to Black Legend-type explanations for depopulation. In response to Stannard's figure, political scientist R. J. Rummel has instead estimated that over the centuries of European colonization about 2 million to 15 million American indigenous people were the victims of what he calls democide. "Even if these figures are remotely true," writes Rummel, "then this still make this subjugation of the Americas one of the bloodier, centuries long, democides in world history."
While no mainstream historian denies that death and suffering were unjustly inflicted by a number of Europeans upon a great many American natives, most historians argue that genocide, which is a crime of intent, was not the intent of European colonization while in America. Historian Stafford Poole wrote: "There are other terms to describe what happened in the Western Hemisphere, but genocide is not one of them. It is a good propaganda term in an age where slogans and shouting have replaced reflection and learning, but to use it in this context is to cheapen both the word itself and the appalling experiences of the Jews and Armenians, to mention but two of the major victims of this century."
Therefore, most mainstream scholars tend not to use the term "genocide" to describe the overall depopulation of American natives. However, a number of historians, rather than seeing the whole history of European colonization as one long act of genocide, do cite specific wars and campaigns which were arguably genocidal in intent and effect. Usually included among these are the Pequot War (1637) and campaigns waged against tribes in California starting in the 1850s.