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If Sherburne F. Cook was the dominant figure in the “Berkeley Era” of the study of Native American historical demography, his equivalent in the next period was undoubtedly Henry F. Dobyns. Dobyns was a complicated, controversial figure and his legacy today is decidedly mixed, but his importance to the intellectual history of this issue is unquestionable. It is no exaggeration to say that he single-handedly launched the topic into the scholarly limelight, and he continued to pursue it for decades even as questions about his own methodology and approach began to spur a backlash. Although the history is complicated, for convenience and in recognition of Dobyns’s importance I’ve defined this period as bracketed by what are probably his two most important publications on the subject: his 1966 paper in Current Anthropology that first drew extensive scholarly interest to the subfield and was enormously influential in defining it, and his 1983 book that, while also very influential in some circles, in others was considered a major overreach that threw his whole approach into question.

In between, numerous scholars from a wide variety of disciplines investigated the question of population history and the impact of epidemic disease with an unprecedented fervor. Most of these studies, certainly the most influential ones, ended up falling on the “high-counter” side of the demographic debate. With its obvious political implications during a period of intense political awareness, activism, and dispute, there was a clear sense that the high-counter position was ascendant and revolutionizing the whole world’s understanding of the tragedies of the past and how they led inexorably to the inequities of the present.

As I’ve noted before, though, this is an oversimplification. A parallel tradition of low counts continued as an undercurrent to the high-count hegemony, mostly focused in certain disciplines and institutions. This current would emerge into higher prominence in the 1980s and afterward as the work of Dobyns and his acolytes started to be questioned by a wide variety of detailed empirical studies of particular regions. Ironically, this turn in the scholarship would come as the earlier high-count research was just beginning to be incorporated into more popularized accounts which made it better known among the general public.

This chapter of the story is in some sense the heart of it. In some ways it’s a story of scholarly hubris (particularly on the part of Dobyns personally) that eventually led to a painful reckoning, but again that is too simple. The high counters of this era made enduring contributions to understanding of this issue even if not all of their specific conclusions have stood the test of time. In a qualitative sense, at least, even their strongest critics would mostly concede that they were closer to capturing the historical reality than most of their predecessors. Their greatest flaw, perhaps unsurprising in the context of the mid-century modernist context in which they worked, may have been an excessive confidence in the potential for academic research to provide specific, detailed answers to complicated historical questions.

Dobyns was born and raised in Arizona, and his early anthropological work focused mainly on the tribes there, including providing support to their land claims cases against the federal government in the 1950s. After getting his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1960, he was hired by Cornell and went to Peru to work on the Vicos Project, an innovative and groundbreaking exercise in applied anthropology. Both in Arizona and Peru, Dobyns also did research in the colonial and mission archives and developed an interest in historical demography. He noticed very severe population declines in the records of both areas, and began to develop a theory for what was behind them that would end up being enormously influential in anthropology and beyond.

Dobyns published some early work on the population dynamics of southern Arizona, but his first widely influential publication was a 1963 article on the history of epidemics in Peru. This article was foundational to the emerging interest in disease history and is still widely cited today. His most important early work, however, was the aforementioned 1966 Current Anthropology article in which he reviewed previous approaches to the issue of precontact population and introduced a new methodology and estimate of his own.

The majority of this article consists of a thorough and detailed analysis of all the methodologies that had been used to estimate pre-contact Native American populations. Dobyns convincingly demonstrates that the various techniques used by the “low-counter” school of Mooney and Kroeber likely underestimated numbers by disregarding the accounts of contemporary observers and relying overly on extrapolations from later ethnography. He is more positive about the innovative estimation and extrapolation methods of Cook and others in his circle at Berkeley. In addition, he forcefully points out the importance of disease in affecting population numbers, a factor largely ignored by the previous researchers he cites, with the partial exception of Cook. In fact, Dobyns discusses in detail Cook’s monograph on the malaria epidemic of the 1830s in Oregon and California, a very important study still widely cited today. Dobyns specifically emphasizes two important but underappreciated aspects of disease in relation to demography:

Cook’s analysis of this California epidemic demonstrated the operation of two very important processes in the human ecology of aboriginal American populations. First, he showed the magnitude of mortality which a single epidemic can cause in a non-resistant population. Second, he called attention to the biological fact that epidemic infection is not limited to tribal populations in immediate face-to-face contact with Europeans. The decimation of native Californians was not limited to missionized Indians, but extended outward as far as disease agent and vector could spread infection from intrusive (white) carriers to aboriginal populations. It is necessary to maintain constant awareness of these two processes or fundamental trends among natives of the New World. Any interpretation of reported native populations during the early years of contact with Europeans which ignores the tremendous mortality caused by epidemics inevitably underestimates the size of the aboriginal populace.

Dobyns would continue to emphasize these factors throughout his career.

Dobyns’s analysis of past work is highly convincing in showing the flaws that led to past underestimation of population numbers, and this accounts in part for the influence this paper has had on subsequent scholarship. He went beyond this, however, and also attempted to devise a new methodology which would avoid those flaws and provide a sounder basis for making estimates. Here he starts to make some assumptions and interpretive leaps that would ultimately lead him into some methodological flaws of his own.

Dobyns starts by defining a “depopulation ratio” comparing the population of a given group at two times in its history. The two times he is particularly concerned with are the group’s precontact population, or as close to it as is possible to get, and the time when it hit its nadir of population and began to grow again (as most Native populations eventually did). He doesn’t really justify his use of these two endpoints or the generalizability of a ratio derived from them. He looks at several well-documented cases, including central Mexico, the Andes, California, the Amazon, and the Piman-speakers of southern Arizona and northern Sonora, and derives to his satisfaction a ratio of 20:1 as a “sound, if perhaps conservative, tool to employ as a hemispheric minimum.” He considers 25:1 an alternative ratio to derive a reasonable range. Using these two ratios and available data on population nadirs, he comes up with an aggregate hemispheric estimate of 90,043,000 to 112,553,750 for the whole Western Hemisphere at contact. Kroeber had estimated 8,400,000.

A hundred million people! This conclusion was striking and contributed to the influence of Dobyns on further research. He notes in the paper that Cook’s Berkeley colleague Woodrow Borah had recently come to a very similar estimate, so he was not totally on his own and in some ways his estimate was a plausible expansion of the increasingly high counts that were coming out of Berkeley in the wake of Cook’s pioneering research. Much of that research was in relatively obscure regional publications, however, and it was Dobyns who brought it to one of the flagship publications of American anthropology and garnered a large audience. As it typically does for its major paper, Current Anthropology sent the paper around to a wide variety of other scholars and published their comments, which were mostly very positive, with occasional reservations on particular points. The combination of bold thinking with seemingly innovative quantitative techniques fit well with certain tendencies within the social sciences at mid-century.

They also fit with an increasing political awareness of the plight of modern Native people, along with the general political tumult of the 1960s. Dobyns himself was a strong advocate for Native rights, going back to his land claim days, and his concept that precontact Native populations were large and (implicitly) successful, only to lose 95% or more of their people to disease introduced by Europeans, fit well with the political mood of the times.

The following year, Dobyns’s conclusions were bolstered by a paper by the historian Alfred Crosby documenting the smallpox epidemic that accompanied the Spanish conquistadors into central Mexico and, per Dobyns’s earlier Andean epidemic research, probably continued to spread ahead of them into the Inca empire, killing the emperor and fatally weakening the empire itself. This was a concrete example of the dynamics of disease that Dobyns had discussed in general terms, with very clear and dramatic consequences for the course of world history. Crosby would later go on to expand his argument in his groundbreaking 1972 book The Columbian Exchange and a 1976 paper outlining the specifics of how “virgin soil epidemics” contributed to depopulation in the Americas.

Dobyns’s and Crosby’s ideas rapidly caught fire in all sorts of disciplines, and led to innumerable studies of specific areas in the coming decades. The historian Wilbur Jacobs, whom we encountered before through his oral history of the Berkeley medical school and its treatment of S. F. Cook, wrote an important overview of the implications for the history of contact. Other studies, too numerous to list, looked at the issue from the vantage points of geography, anthropology and many other disciplines. Throughout the heyday of 1970s the high-count school of Dobyns and Crosby expanded its reach and refined its estimates and arguments.

There were some dissenting voices even at this time, however. The low-counters may have seen their influence eclipsed, but they didn’t disappear, and as I’ve noted before they were particularly concentrated in certain disciplines.

In direct response to Dobyns’s article, the Andeanist C. T. Smith published his own in Current Anthropology in 1970. Following up on some mild criticism by the geographer William Denevan in his comments on Dobyns, Smith notes that the depopulation ratio of 20:1, if truly an average of well-documented cases, probably conceals considerable variation in the underlying data set. With regard to the colonial Andes, one of Dobyns’s most important cases for determining the ratio, Smith points out that the coastal regions Dobyns used in his analysis have markedly higher depopulation ratios than the interior regions in the same data; combining them reduces the depopulation ratio to 4:1. Smith is not necessarily opposed to Dobyns’s ideas, however, and he merely suggests that the dynamics of coastal and interior populations in this region should be considered separately. He also does a detailed analysis of additional colonial census data to further refine the depopulation estimates, and Dobyns’s comments on his paper are largely positive.

One notable discipline that was strikingly absent from the study of this demographic topic is, perhaps surprisingly, demography. The reasons for this were made clear in a 1975 paper, again in Current Anthropology, by the demographer William Petersen. In an astonishing display of saying-the-quiet-part-loud, Petersen took aim at a wide variety of demographic interpretations widespread in the study of prehistory. This mostly takes the form of noting the very slim data available for various methods of estimating prehistoric population parameters. With regard to catastrophic population loss in the wake of contact, he admits that there certainly have been losses, and does seem to agree with Dobyns in giving historical accounts more credence than Kroeber did, though he also notes Smith’s clarification about the differences between coastal and interior populations in the Andes. Overall, he maintains a skeptical position and notes the contemporary political implications of positing much larger precontact populations, which he also analogizes to the nineteenth-century “Mound Builder” legends to explain the mounds of the midwestern US. In his response to what he terms Petersen’s “pontifical perambulation,” Dobyns attempts to refute his accusation that high-counters are political opponents of modern liberal capitalism by noting that he himself invests in the stock market and admires some companies. This is not very convincing in substance, but the polemical tone foreshadows Dobyns’s reactions to subsequent criticisms.

Archaeologists and physical anthropologists also continued to be skeptical about the ideas coming largely from historians and geographers. Many of these holdouts were associated with the Smithsonian Institution and carried on the legacy of Mooney, in some cases quite directly. Douglas Ubelaker, who worked on the editing of the Smithsonian’s updated Handbook of North American Indians, was in part responsible for updates to Mooney’s demographic estimates included in the original version of the Handbook. In an interim report published in 1976, he noted that the estimates for specific tribes and regions submitted by that point were higher than Mooney’s, but well below Dobyns’s. The total estimate approximately double’s Mooney’s total, which implies a hemispheric total of about 16 million. A significant difference indeed!

These quibbles were fairly minor during this period, however. The event that started to bring them out more forcefully was, perhaps ironically, Dobyns’s publication in 1983 of his book Their Number Become Thinned, which focused on the Timucuan people of northern Florida but served also a vehicle for him to promote his revised and expanded methodology for population estimates and the role of disease in depopulation. By this point the high count hegemony had reached its breaking point.

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