Archive for the ‘Virgin Soil, Widowed Land’ Category

Arizona Welcome Sign

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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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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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.


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.


San Juan Regional Medical Center, Farmington, New Mexico

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