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Archive for October, 2020

Clinic, Pilot Point, Alaska

Well, it’s certainly been a while since I introduced this series! The coronavirus hasn’t gone anywhere, though, and neither have I. I’ve been reading lots of fascinating stuff on New World (de)population and disease history, and I have a pretty good idea of the way the series is going to look overall. I’m still not sure how long it’s going to take (at least several months) or how many posts it will ultimately include. I have enough of a sense now, though, to give a tentative outline of the topics I intend to cover, and that’s what I’ll do in this post. I’ve also decided to make a couple changes to the scope of the series, which I’ll also discuss here.

To take the latter issue first, I initially said I would limit the scope of the history I’m looking at to exclude the Black Death of the fourteenth century and the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic, with the idea that the epidemics of interest for Native American population mostly occurred between the two, each of which has been the subject of such an immense scholarly literature that it would be easy to get bogged down. After digging a bit further into the overall topic, though, I realized there were good reasons to look at both these pandemics, and indeed others both earlier and later. The issue of getting bogged down is a real one, which I’ve managed to mostly avoid with the Spanish Flu but less so with the Black Death. Still, so much of the scholarly literature on disease history and the general impacts of epidemics involves or relies on study of these most prominent examples that it doesn’t really make sense to arbitrarily exclude them.

Furthermore, looking both earlier and later than the core period between these two pandemics turns out to be pretty important. Earlier, there were some important epidemics worthy of study for many reasons, including the light they may shed on the history and evolution of certain diseases (especially now that ancient DNA analysis techniques have reached the point that specific pathogens can be unambiguously identified in ancient remains). Later, there were some specific epidemics postdating 1918 that turn out to be very important for the scholarly history of “virgin soil” epidemics and depopulation, in part because they were directly witnessed by doctors trained in modern scientific medicine. Of these, the most important are a series of epidemics in the Yukon Territory associated with the building of the Alaska Highway in the 1940s and another series in the Amazon in the 1960s. So I’ve essentially abandoned any hard temporal bounds on the scope of the series, although the main focus will of course be on the period from roughly 1500 to 1900.

Okay, on to the outline. To anticipate the overall conclusions a bit, despite a long history of research on the topic of Native American depopulation and the role of epidemic disease, I’ve found that there’s never really been a solid consensus about anything related to these topics and such a consensus is, if anything, further away now than it’s ever been. There have been general trends in the popularity of certain interpretations and methodological approaches, which can be (and have been) conveniently categorized into periods of one approach or another being dominant, but a closer look shows that there has always been a diversity of views that really cluster most clearly by academic discipline. I’ll get into this in more detail later, but the general idea is that rather than “high counters” and “low counters” exchanging periods of hegemony, there have always been both, concentrated in their own disciplinary zones, though their influence as measured by the spread of their ideas into other disciplines does show a certain back-and-forth pattern over time.

With that overall idea in mind, and despite my skepticism about a general chronological patter being most important, I do intend to structure the first part of the series chronologically. I’ll have posts for each major “era” in the modern study of these topics, which will hopefully give a sense of the major players and their ideas through time. After that overview, I’ll do multiple subseries of posts looking at the question from our current perspective, taking account of the various contributions from different disciplines.

These subseries will include one organized nosologically, or by the modern categorization of diseases and the pathogens that we now know to cause them. Another subseries will be geographic, looking at the different regions of the New World and what we know (and don’t know) about their population and disease histories. I may also do a third subseries looking chronologically at the big picture of population and disease throughout the different periods of contact and colonization in the Western Hemisphere, but I’m not as sure about that one yet.

So that’s the general idea. As I mentioned above, the series will definitely take a minimum of several months (it’s already taken more than three months to get to this second post!), but I don’t know how long it will ultimately take or how many posts it will involve. It’s a big but fascinating and important topic.

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