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Archive for the ‘Virgin Soil, Widowed Land’ Category

California Welcome Sign

The study of Native American depopulation and the role of epidemic disease in it began in earnest around the beginning of the twentieth century, and from that point until 1966 it remained a relatively obscure niche topic across several different disciplines. Interestingly, the few scholars interested in this topic, regardless of disciplinary background or specific position on the substantive issues, were overwhelmingly concentrated at a single institution: the University of California at Berkeley.

It’s not entirely clear why Berkeley became the focus of study for this topic, but the precipitous decline in numbers of the California Indians during the nineteenth century, which happened right before the eyes of many of the early white settlers, had spurred more interest in the general topic there than elsewhere starting with the very earliest attempts at professional anthropology. A key early attempt to estimate the numbers of inhabitants in aboriginal California was published in 1905 by C. Hart Merriam. Merriam noted that the part of the state under the influence of the Spanish missions, which he estimated to be approximately one-fifth of the non-desert area, had relatively good demographic data provided by the missionaries. He further assessed, based on his personal experience doing fieldwork throughout the state, that the resource base of the entire non-desert area was pretty similar and could presumably support a similar population density (though he acknowledged that there was no evidence that it actually did). He therefore took the demographic data from the mission records, adjusted it to account for unconverted Indians within the missionized zone, whom he estimated on no evidence to form one-quarter of the total population, and multiplied it by five to come up with a total estimate for the non-desert portion of the state.

For 1834, the year for which Merriam considered the mission data most complete and reliable, he estimated 30,000 Indians in the missions, 10,000 unconverted Indians in the mission zone, and a non-desert state total of 200,000. He further estimated the desert population at 10,000 (again with no basis), for a total within the current state boundaries of 210,000 in 1834. He further noted the decrease of population over the course of the mission period and estimated a total population of 260,000 as of first contact in the late eighteenth century.

Merriam further looked at estimates for Indian population made by various officials during the American period, starting in the 1850s and made some adjustments for under-counting of Indians living away from reservations. He concluded that the population decline had been dramatic, resulting in a 1900 estimate of just 15,500 people. He identified two periods of particularly sharp decline, following the secularization of the missions in 1834 and the start of the Gold Rush in 1848. These two periods overlapped, and Merriam attributed them to similar causes, primarily the greed and oppressive behavior of white settlers, but he saw them as involving distinct groups of both Indians and settlers (Spanish-Mexican ranchers along the coast in the first case, Anglo and international gold prospectors further inland in the second). He mentioned disease in passing as one factor leading to the demographic decline, but didn’t emphasize it.

Merriam’s methodology was fairly crude by modern standards, but it was pretty sophisticated for its time. It’s interesting to note that Merriam combined aspects of what would eventually come to be the two main methodological approaches to estimating pre-contact populations: working backward from ethnohistorical documentation and estimating carrying capacity of particular types of land based on subsistence resources available.

Soon after Merriam’s work was published, James Mooney at the Smithsonian Institution began work on a more ambitious project to estimate contact population for all of North America. A brief summary of this work appeared in the Bureau of American Ethnology’s first Handbook of North American Indians, but Mooney never published his intended full monograph due to his untimely death in 1921. An abbreviated version based on his notes was published posthumously by the Smithsonian in 1928. Mooney primarily made his estimates based on the earliest surviving population counts of reasonable reliability for each tribe, with adjustments to get from there to an estimate of population at whatever date constituted “contact” for the area in question (ranging from 1600 to 1780). Mooney took historically recorded epidemics into consideration in making these adjustments, along with warfare and other factors. For California, however, unlike every other region, Mooney did not make his own estimates but adopted Merriam’s.

Merriam wasn’t based in California, but his pioneering fieldwork there was influential on the development of a local tradition of anthropology at Berkeley, which was developed largely by Alfred Kroeber, a towering figure in American anthropology generally. Kroeber studied a wide variety of topics, and Native American demography was one of them. Around the same time Mooney was working on his estimates for the “Population” chapter of the Handbook of North American Indians, Kroeber began work on his own using a similar methodology for the California chapter of the same publication. Working backward from the earliest solid counts in the ethnographic record, Kroeber came up with a count of approximately 150,000 at the time of contact. This is a much lower number than Merriam’s, and over the years Kroeber became even more conservative in his estimates. By the time he published his own Handbook of the Indians of California in 1925 his overall estimate had declined to 133,000, approximately half of Merriam’s number.

In 1934 Kroeber published an article discussing Native American contact-era population for all of North America, in which he adopted Mooney’s estimates for most areas but substituted his own estimate for California in place of Merriam’s. This reduced the overall continental estimate a bit, and Kroeber stated in the article that he was using Mooney’s estimates but that he thought they were likely a bit high and would come down as more research was done. John R. Swanton, the Smithsonian anthropologist who edited Mooney’s work for the 1928 publication, had a similar opinion, which he expressed in the footnotes at various points.

All this makes Mooney, Swanton, and Kroeber the main founders of the “low counter” school of thought on these issues. Due to Kroeber’s towering reputation within the discipline of anthropology and his prominent post leading the anthropology department at Berkeley, the low count position would come to be popular in many circles among anthropologists for decades to come. This was particularly true among archaeologists and physical anthropologists, who also had other reasons based on their own research and (sub-)disciplinary perspectives to incline toward low counts. Similarly, Mooney and Swanton’s legacy led to a longstanding tendency toward low counts among Smithsonian Institution anthropologists, again especially among physical anthropologists and archaeologists.

At the same time all this was going on in the 1920s and 1930s, however, a very different perspective on population counts and demographic decline was developing among a different set of researchers, again with Berkeley as a major base and California, along with Mexico, as a major field of investigation. This perspective, which would develop into the “high counter” school with a focus on environmental carrying capacity, was largely led by geographers, with the most prominent figure being Carl O. Sauer at Berkeley’s geography department.

Sauer’s role in the development of geography was parallel in many ways to Kroeber’s in anthropology, and his personal research interests were equally broad as well. He had a particular interest in Mexico, and it was his research in the 1930s with Donald Brand (also known for his research on Chaco Canyon around the same time) on the historical demography of northwestern Mexico that set the tone for the school of thought that would follow him on this topic. After reviewing the available historical and archaeological data available at the time, Sauer and Brand concluded that northwestern Mexico had been home to approximately as many people in pre-contact times as in their own time. Given the historical evidence for much lower populations in the initial centuries after Spanish contact, this implied an immense decline in population after contact that contrasted strongly with the interpretations of Kroeber et al. that posited low pre-contact populations and substantial continuity in demographic trends across the boundary of contact. Sauer’s students in geography at Berkeley, and their own students there and at other institutions, would go on to develop his ideas over the next few decades, with the result that geography would become a bastion of “high-counter” thought just as archaeology and physical anthropology would become centers for “low-counter” thought.

The most prominent high counters to emerge in Sauer’s immediate wake, however, were not geographers at all, though they were still associated with Berkeley. They included the Latin Americanist historians Leslie Byrd Simpson and Woodrow Wilson Borah, but the most prominent figure was a physiologist at Berkeley’s medical school named Sherburne Friend Cook.

Cook is a complex figure with an immense but ambiguous impact on the field of Native American historical demography. His eclectic interests and long career at Berkeley echo those of Kroeber and Sauer, but unlike them he was a marginal figure in his own discipline. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1925 with a dissertation on the toxic effects of heavy metals, and after being hired at Berkeley a few years later he continued to study that topic. He was something of a pioneer in studying the physiological effects of environmental contaminants and his early career looked bright.

As Cook continued his studies on heavy metal toxicity in the early 1930s, however, he veered into political ground equally toxic to his career. He documented the presence of heavy metals in chicken feed and began to trace them up the food chain to the chickens and then to the people who ate them. The public health implications of this line of research were considerable, but so were the economic implications to chicken feed manufacturers. It appears (based on later oral history research among Berkeley academics by the historian Wilbur Jacobs) that those manufacturers influenced a dean at the medical school to try to prevent Cook from publishing his results and to go on to use administrative chicanery to sabotage his career for many years.

Discouraged, Cook began to divert his attention away from physiology and explore other fields of interest. He somehow stumbled upon a transcript in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library of an eighteenth-century description of the diseases of the Indians of Baja California written by a Jesuit missionary, which he translated and published in 1935 in a local medical journal. He went on to publish various other odds and ends of medical history and related topics over the course of the next few years. He developed an interest in Indian demography and population history, and was in friendly contact with both Kroeber and Sauer as they did their studies on this topic in the 1930s.

Cook was an astonishingly productive and creative researcher, and he conducted numerous studies of Indian population history, along with many other topics, over the remaining forty years of his life. He developed numerous ingenious methodological approaches to try to wring population estimates out of the most unlikely sources, including Aztec tribute lists and various environmental productivity estimates in California. His methodology was constantly being adjusted, so his specific population estimates for given areas varied from publication to publication, but in general he was coming up with high numbers more in line with Sauer’s results than Kroeber’s. He also did extensive studies of disease history, including a very important 1955 publication on the “fever and ague” that swept California and Oregon in the early 1930s in which he argued, contra earlier researchers, that it was most likely malaria and its extreme death rate among Indians was due to it being their first exposure to the pathogen. (An early glimpse of the “virgin soil” concept that would become so influential later.)

Cook’s research was extraordinarily wide-ranging, and some of it would be controversial on a variety of grounds especially after his death. Many of his ingenious methodologies for estimating populations relied on assumptions that didn’t hold up well to closer investigation, and his conclusions about the oppressive conditions in the California missions were vigorously contested by pro-mission scholars, especially those affiliated with the Catholic Church. He stands as a towering figure in the field of historical demography of Native Americans, however, and set the tone for the emergence of that field as a focal point of scholarship.

Cook’s final estimate for the contact-era population of California was 310,000. This was somewhat higher than Merriam’s estimate of 260,000, and much higher than Kroeber’s 133,000, putting Cook firmly on the “high-counter” side. The influence of Cook and his collaborators, while fairly limited in what was still an obscure field of study in the 1940s and 1950s, would expand dramatically in the 1960s as a new generation of researchers moved the topic out of the back halls of Berkeley and dramatically into the academic and political spotlight.

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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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tcchospital

Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center, Fairbanks, Alaska

Today is the summer solstice, which is an event I usually mark with a blog post about archaeoastronomy. Today I’m going to do something a little different, though. Since the coronavirus pandemic has been dominating and reshaping life around the world for months now, with no end in sight, I’ve been reading up on past epidemics and their impacts on the populations and societies of the Western Hemisphere, and today I’m launching a series of blog posts discussing these issues. I don’t have a clear sense yet of how long this series will go on or what the frequency of posting will be, but it will likely be pretty extensive. The literature on this subject is huge and fascinating, and I’m still working my way through it.

To keep some control over the scope of this series, I’m setting some basic guidelines in advance for what it will include. The main focus will be on the Western Hemisphere and the impacts of diseases introduced by Europeans on Native American societies, although this may branch out a bit into other geographical areas (e.g., Oceania and Africa) that offer interesting parallels and/or counterpoints to the American experience, and I will also look to some extent at the impact of epidemics on European settler societies as well, and in some cases also at possible epidemic diseases that were transmitted in the opposite direction, the most famous example of which is syphilis. The temporal scope will start with 1492, though with some attention to the epidemiological and demographic landscapes before that that shaped the progress of events afterward, and end before the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918. The literature on the 1918 flu is vast and interesting in its own right, but it’s just too much to incorporate into what is already a very ambitious project.

One of the major issues in this field, which has shaped a lot of the scholarly discussion especially over the past 50 or 60 years, is the question of the total Native American population of the Western Hemisphere before European contact in 1492. Estimates of population have varied immensely over time, with enormous implications for how scholars have understood the nature of Native societies, European colonization, and many other important issues. I’ll go into much more detail about the various estimates and the controversy over them in subsequent posts.

nomehospital

Norton Sound Regional Hospital, Nome, Alaska

I’m calling this series “Virgin Soil, Widowed Land.” Both of those phrases have come up in the scholarly debate over epidemics and demography, and I find it interesting that they both use the same (rather distasteful, to be honest) metaphor in very different ways. “Virgin soil” epidemics are those that impact populations with little or no preexisting immunity to the disease in question, so they cause intensive impacts well beyond those on populations with more immunity. The current COVID-19 epidemic is of this type, since the coronavirus in question is new and no one in the world had immunity to it when it emerged. Similarly, New World populations lacked immunity to most Old World diseases, which therefore had catastrophic impacts on them. (Just how catastrophic and what the exact impacts were is very controversial, of course.)

The “virgin soil” concept refers to the populations that an epidemic impacts, but it intersects with a separate use of the virginity metaphor with a longer history in the study of European colonialism: the “virgin land.” In this concept, the Native people of the Americas were few in number and made limited, superficial use of the land, so the land was essentially unused and available for the taking by European colonists. There is a lot of implicit racism and white-supremacist thinking in this concept, but that’s a lot of the historiography of European colonialism for you. Once some scholars started looking more closely at some of the evidence for pre-Columbian population and the impacts of epidemic disease in the wake of initial contact, the virgin land concept came to seem less and less plausible even descriptively, and in some circles it began to be replaced with the idea of a “widowed land,” in which the land may have been largely empty in many places when European colonists arrived, but this was in large part due to the earlier impacts of virgin soil epidemics spurred by initial European contact.

This makes European colonization look a lot worse in some ways, though it arguably still lets the colonists off the hook too much. One objection to the emphasis on epidemic disease as a factor in Native depopulation is that it seems to imply that depopulation was both inevitable after contact and in some sense not really the colonists’ fault since they didn’t know they were carrying deadly disease with them. As I’ll discuss in future posts, there may be something to this but many researchers have pointed to other more direct impacts from deliberate actions of the Europeans, who definitely attacked, enslaved, and violently displaced Native groups from many areas in ways that probably caused substantial mortality on their own in addition to amplifying the effects of disease.

Anyway, there’s much more to say about these issues both in general, big-picture terms and at the level of individual microhistorical case studies. This may seem a little far afield from my focus on Chaco Canyon, which long predates European contact and the impact of these epidemics, but I see it as all part of the same big story, and it certainly is topical and potentially of interest in our current pandemic-dominated world. I can’t necessarily say there are specific lessons we can take for the COVID-19 pandemic from studying previous ones, but I think it’s always better to understand the past better to inform decisionmaking in the present.

farmingtonhospital

San Juan Regional Medical Center, Farmington, New Mexico

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