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Archive for December, 2020

Wijiji Trail, Heading Back toward Campground

Today is the winter solstice, which makes it the 12th anniversary of this blog. I usually do an archaeoastronomy post on this occasion, but since I’m now in the midst of my series on the role of disease in the depopulation of Native America I’m instead going to do a post giving a broad overview of the research on this topic as I see it. Subsequent posts will go into more detail about the different periods of research and the major developments and trends within them. I said in my last post that the series would continue with posts about individual diseases and possibly geographic regions, but I’m now thinking that material might be better for a freestanding spinoff site than a series of blog posts. I’m still not totally decided on that question, though. (WordPress has made some recent changes that are driving me crazy, so that’s a consideration. It may just be time to move on.)

The issue of the role of introduced epidemic diseases in the collapse of Native American populations after contact with Europeans has been a fraught one in the scholarship for approximately the last hundred years. (There was little interest before that for reasons that are unclear.) The story is often told within the framework of Kuhnian scientific paradigm shifts, as a matter of an early period (ca. 1900 to 1966) dominated by “Low Counters” followed by a period (ca. 1966 to 1983) when they were replaced by “High Counters.” (The dates are based on landmark publications by the cultural anthropologist Henry Dobyns, who played a huge role in this discourse throughout his long career.) Popularized versions, such as found in books like Charles Mann’s 1491, often only go that far, and view the High Counters as having won out with better evidence than the Low Counters could muster.

The story is more complicated than that, however, even within the paradigm framework, and it’s reasonable to see the period since 1983 as one of backlash to the High Counters, especially Dobyns, with Low Counters newly ascendant but not as dominant as they were in the beginning. To this day, the field is marked by a notable lack of consensus on any aspect of the problem, and many different approaches coexist uneasily in the context of a generally acknowledged lack of solid evidence supporting any firm conclusions.

This “paradigm shift” model seems reasonable enough, especially from the perspective of the people involved, but a closer look at the timing of publications and the development of ideas tells a different story that I think is more realistic. In this view, there never was quite the level of consensus on either Low or High Counting that the paradigm shift model implies, and the current muddle of different approaches actually goes back all the way for the whole century of research. In this view, the key factor in distinguishing different approaches to the problem is not time period but discipline.

Different scholarly disciplines have developed different approaches, methodologies, and research traditions on the question of aboriginal demography and the impact of disease. Some disciplines, perhaps inspired or constrained by the type of evidence they work from, have very consistent approaches tending toward either a High or Low Count: for example, historians have tended to be High Counters, while archaeologists and physical anthropologists have tended to be Low Counters. Other disciplines lack a consistent approach and have been divided between High and Low Counters; cultural anthropology is a good example. Still other disciplines, including some of obvious relevance like demography and epidemiology, have been largely absent from the debate entirely, or have started to join it only recently.

It may seem rather odd that a seemingly straightforward question, such as “How many people lived in the New World in 1492?” could spawn such a wide and chaotic range not only of answers but of ways of approaching the process of answering. The underlying problem, as I see it, is a lack of solid data of any kind. Every discipline that has attacked the problem has used its own methods and models to try to come up with answers, but they all rely on inputs of data from the empirical record, and that data is fundamentally neither extensive nor reliable. In other words, no matter what ingenious research machine is used to try to answer the question (and there have been some that are very ingenious indeed), it ends up getting bogged down with a version of the “garbage in, garbage out” problem. This is most obvious with the more quantitative approaches rooted in social science, of course, but it affects the more qualitative, humanistic approaches as well to at least the same degree.

So is this a counsel of despair? Will we never know how many people there were and how many died due to disease and other factors? I think the answers are probably yes to the latter question, but no to the former. The actual numbers probably are unknowable with any degree of certainty except for certain small areas, but the numbers themselves are not actually as important as some earlier generations of scholars thought. The reason the debate has been so intense, of course, is that it’s not really about the numbers themselves but about what they represent.

For a lot of people the real issue is how we understand and interpret the way the history of exploration and colonization of the Americas has proceeded over the past 500 years. For some research traditions, the number of inhabitants at the beginning of that process and the rapidity with which it fell are important ways to guide those interpretations and the moral judgments they often involve. From this perspective, a large population that collapsed rapidly after contact could indicate that contact and colonization was either a tragic mistake or a world-historical crime, whereas a small population that declined slowly could indicate that there was plenty of room for newcomers and nothing to criticize about their behavior. These are caricatures of the most extreme points on what is actually a complex, multidimensional spectrum of positions actually held by various researchers over the years, but they get at the emotional element that often underlies the heated disputes that have developed over what might seem like a dry matter of counting people.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. I think the moral and interpretive questions actually don’t depend on the quantitative ones, and the probably insolubility of the latter don’t determine the answers to the former. Colonialism can still be immoral even if it doesn’t involve the death of 95% of a preexisting population, or if it does so through the inadvertent action of introduced diseases rather than through deliberate extermination. They’re just different kinds of questions.

So that’s my big-picture view of the history and current status of these questions. It may be unsatisfying to those who want more solid answers, but sometimes those answers just aren’t accessible and we have to be content to live with some ambiguity. In subsequent posts, in addition to going through the intellectual history in more detail, I’ll also spell out more extensively the role of epidemic disease, which has definitely been a bit of an auxiliary question to the more central demographic one. Given where we are in the world today, obviously the disease question is of particular interest.

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