The Western Hemisphere Before Columbus

While everyone knows that the “New World” had long been inhabited prior to Columbus’ arrival in 1492, most of us Westerners do not give the matter much thought. The people living here — who spanned a vast and culturally diverse assortment of tribes, kingdoms, nations, and advanced civilizations — have been as casually swept aside in present consciousness and historical memory as they were in actuality following the mass arrival of Europeans.

The Atlantic has an interesting piece that touches on what life was like in the Western Hemisphere before Europeans “discovered” it. Although it is a long read — albeit insufficient to capture the entirety of indigenous experience across two continents — I highly recommend it, for it fleshes out the pre-Columbian Americas in a way most history books fail to.

Take for example demographics. Though widely regarded by Europeans, and indeed their contemporary descendents, as having been a mostly empty and untouched place, scholarly research going back to the 1960s discovered that the hemisphere numbered more people than even Europe.

The Indians in Peru, Dobyns concluded, had faced plagues from the day the conquistadors showed up—in fact, before then: smallpox arrived around 1525, seven years ahead of the Spanish. Brought to Mexico apparently by a single sick Spaniard, it swept south and eliminated more than half the population of the Incan empire. Smallpox claimed the Incan dictator Huayna Capac and much of his family, setting off a calamitous war of succession. So complete was the chaos that Francisco Pizarro was able to seize an empire the size of Spain and Italy combined with a force of 168 men.

Smallpox was only the first epidemic. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618—all ravaged the remains of Incan culture. Dobyns was the first social scientist to piece together this awful picture, and he naturally rushed his findings into print. Hardly anyone paid attention. But Dobyns was already working on a second, related question: If all those people died, how many had been living there to begin with? Before Columbus, Dobyns calculated, the Western Hemisphere held ninety to 112 million people. Another way of saying this is that in 1491 more people lived in the Americas than in Europe.

His argument was simple but horrific. It is well known that Native Americans had no experience with many European diseases and were therefore immunologically unprepared—”virgin soil”, in the metaphor of epidemiologists. What Dobyns realized was that such diseases could have swept from the coastlines initially visited by Europeans to inland areas controlled by Indians who had never seen a white person. The first whites to explore many parts of the Americas may therefore have encountered places that were already depopulated. Indeed, Dobyns argued, they must have done so.

So much of the reason settlers managed to sweep into these seemingly pristine lands with such rapidity was simply that the overwhelmingly majority of the inhabitants had long been wiped out; those comparatively few that remain — approximately fewer than 10 percent of the original population — were too weakened and scattered to mount much of a defense (though they nonetheless put up vigorously resistance, in some cases up until the late 19th century).

As one could imagine, the article makes for an often depressing read, documenting in detail how the natives were dealt a double blow by both human cruelty and biological forces beyond anyone’s control (and indeed, at the time, anyone’s knowledge).

Take the case of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, landed in present-day Tampa, Florida in 1539 and cut a bloody swath of murder, torture, enslavement, rape, and pillaging across much of today’s southern U.S. The actions of he and his 600 men were bad enough without the even greater calamity brought on by an unsuspecting source.

Soto’s force itself was too small to be an effective biological weapon. Sicknesses like measles and smallpox would have burned through his 600 soldiers long before they reached the Mississippi. But the same would not have held true for the pigs, which multiplied rapidly and were able to transmit their diseases to wildlife in the surrounding forest. When human beings and domesticated animals live close together, they trade microbes with abandon. Over time mutation spawns new diseases: avian influenza becomes human influenza, bovine rinderpest becomes measles. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not live in close quarters with animals—they domesticated only the dog, the llama, the alpaca, the guinea pig, and, here and there, the turkey and the Muscovy duck. In some ways this is not surprising: the New World had fewer animal candidates for taming than the Old. Moreover, few Indians carry the gene that permits adults to digest lactose, a form of sugar abundant in milk. Non-milk-drinkers, one imagines, would be less likely to work at domesticating milk-giving animals. But this is guesswork. The fact is that what scientists call zoonotic disease was little known in the Americas. Swine alone can disseminate anthrax, brucellosis, leptospirosis, taeniasis, trichinosis, and tuberculosis. Pigs breed exuberantly and can transmit diseases to deer and turkeys. Only a few of Soto’s pigs would have had to wander off to infect the forest.

Indeed, the calamity wrought by Soto apparently extended across the whole Southeast. The Coosa city-states, in western Georgia, and the Caddoan-speaking civilization, centered on the Texas-Arkansas border, disintegrated soon after Soto appeared. The Caddo had had a taste for monumental architecture: public plazas, ceremonial platforms, mausoleums. After Soto’s army left, notes Timothy K. Perttula, an archaeological consultant in Austin, Texas, the Caddo stopped building community centers and began digging community cemeteries. Between Soto’s and La Salle’s visits, Perttula believes, the Caddoan population fell from about 200,000 to about 8,500—a drop of nearly 96 percent. In the eighteenth century the tally shrank further, to 1,400. An equivalent loss today in the population of New York City would reduce it to 56,000—not enough to fill Yankee Stadium. “That’s one reason whites think of Indians as nomadic hunters,” says Russell Thornton, an anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Everything else—all the heavily populated urbanized societies—was wiped out.”
Smallpox, typhoid, bubonic plague, influenza, mumps, measles, whooping cough—all rained down on the Americas in the century after Columbus. (Cholera, malaria, and scarlet fever came later.) Having little experience with epidemic diseases, Indians had no knowledge of how to combat them. In contrast, Europeans were well versed in the brutal logic of quarantine. They boarded up houses in which plague appeared and fled to the countryside. In Indian New England, Neal Salisbury, a historian at Smith College, wrote in Manitou and Providence (1982), family and friends gathered with the shaman at the sufferer’s bedside to wait out the illness—a practice that “could only have served to spread the disease more rapidly.”

Indigenous biochemistry may also have played a role. The immune system constantly scans the body for molecules that it can recognize as foreign—molecules belonging to an invading virus, for instance. No one’s immune system can identify all foreign presences. Roughly speaking, an individual’s set of defensive tools is known as his MHC type. Because many bacteria and viruses mutate easily, they usually attack in the form of several slightly different strains. Pathogens win when MHC types miss some of the strains and the immune system is not stimulated to act. Most human groups contain many MHC types; a strain that slips by one person’s defenses will be nailed by the defenses of the next. But, according to Francis L. Black, an epidemiologist at Yale University, Indians are characterized by unusually homogenous MHC types. One out of three South American Indians have similar MHC types; among Africans the corresponding figure is one in 200. The cause is a matter for Darwinian speculation, the effects less so.

And with the rapid and nearly wholesale depopulation of indigenous humans came other consequences that are often overlooked by many historians, let alone average Americans today.

When disease swept Indians from the land, Kay says, what happened was exactly that. The ecological ancien régime collapsed, and strange new phenomena emerged. In a way this is unsurprising; for better or worse, humankind is a keystone species everywhere. Among these phenomena was a population explosion in the species that the Indians had kept down by hunting. After disease killed off the Indians, Kay believes, buffalo vastly extended their range. Their numbers more than sextupled. The same occurred with elk and mule deer. “If the elk were here in great numbers all this time, the archaeological sites should be chock-full of elk bones,” Kay says. “But the archaeologists will tell you the elk weren’t there.” On the evidence of middens the number of elk jumped about 500 years ago.

Passenger pigeons may be another example. The epitome of natural American abundance, they flew in such great masses that the first colonists were stupefied by the sight. As a boy, the explorer Henry Brackenridge saw flocks “ten miles in width, by one hundred and twenty in length.” For hours the birds darkened the sky from horizon to horizon. According to Thomas Neumann, a consulting archaeologist in Lilburn, Georgia, passenger pigeons “were incredibly dumb and always roosted in vast hordes, so they were very easy to harvest.” Because they were readily caught and good to eat, Neumann says, archaeological digs should find many pigeon bones in the pre-Columbian strata of Indian middens. But they aren’t there. The mobs of birds in the history books, he says, were “outbreak populations—always a symptom of an extraordinarily disrupted ecological system.”

Throughout eastern North America the open landscape seen by the first Europeans quickly filled in with forest. According to William Cronon, of the University of Wisconsin, later colonists began complaining about how hard it was to get around. (Eventually, of course, they stripped New England almost bare of trees.) When Europeans moved west, they were preceded by two waves: one of disease, the other of ecological disturbance. The former crested with fearsome rapidity; the latter sometimes took more than a century to quiet down. Far from destroying pristine wilderness, European settlers bloodily created it. By 1800 the hemisphere was chockablock with new wilderness. If “forest primeval” means a woodland unsullied by the human presence, William Denevan has written, there was much more of it in the late eighteenth century than in the early sixteenth.

I sadly do not have the time to give the piece the analysis and commentary it deserves, but in any case, there is not much to add. Read the rest and develop an appreciation for the complex dynamics that existed in the Western Hemisphere before, and because of, mass European settlement. The article does a good job of capturing the nuance of these findings, which remain debated to this day — a sign of progress compared to the relative silence and neglect that characterized pre-Columbian studies until just a few decades ago.

What are your thoughts and reactions?


2 comments on “The Western Hemisphere Before Columbus

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