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Hello Again!

Winter Solstice Sunset

Well, I didn’t expect it to be a whole year since my last post, but that’s just how it has worked out. It’s been quite a year for me in my personal life, but I have been keeping up with researching my Virgin Soil, Widowed Land series of posts, and in fact that project is ballooning into something much bigger than a series of blog posts. One thing that’s becoming clear through that process, though, is that it is about time to wrap up this blog and move on to other platforms. WordPress has made various changes that make my current setup pretty obsolete and hard to use, and I don’t really have any interest in changing this blog to fit in better with current standards.

I am going to finish the series, which will consist of three or four more posts over the course of the next few months. Over that same period, I’ll be setting up a new website with a different format to organize and present all the fascinating information I’ve been learning about the history of epidemics, medicine, demography, etc. in the course of research for this series. I have a lot of ideas for what’s going to go on the new site and I think it’ll be pretty interesting for anyone interested in this blog. I’ll post the link here when it’s ready to go. The name and a lot of other details are still undetermined but will be worked out soon.

Later on, I think a book project is likely to be the ultimate result of all this research and thinking. There’s a lot there but it’s pretty buried in academic and other specialist, technical literature, and I think there’s a need for a popularized treatment of a lot of this history. Obviously epidemic disease is a hot topic these days, so there’s that, but really the importance of this story is much larger and as always, popular accounts lag behind the cutting-edge research.

It’s a bit of a melancholy experience to be winding down this blog, which has been such a big part of my life for so long, even though I think it does make sense. Today marks thirteen years that I’ve been at this, which is a pretty good run as these things go. Happy solstice.


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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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Chaco Is Open!


Welcome Sign at North Entrance

Just a quick follow-up to the previous post: With the shutdown over and the government open again, at least for a little while, Chaco Canyon is open to visitors again. Per a post on the park’s Facebook page, normal operations resumed yesterday, January 27. The current deal only lasts three weeks, though, so if you want to definitely get a trip in do it fast.


Entrance to Pueblo Bonito

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The Rebel Rangers


National Park Service Alaska Regional Office, Anchorage, Alaska

It’s been interesting to me to see a lot of the early resistance to the Trump administration coming from National Park Service employees, starting with the famous tweets about climate change from the Badlands National Park Twitter account and continuing with the various “Alt-NPS” Twitter feeds (the authenticity of which is impossible to confirm, of course, but it’s quite possible at least some are legit). There are some very specific reasons having to do with the NPS’s structure and policies that make it a particularly likely source for this type of thing, and I think some of them are actually problems that really should be addressed in the long term, despite how useful they may be in the short term in pushing back against Trump’s agenda. (I haven’t been very political on this blog in a while, but it should be clear from the above where my sympathies lie, and I think most people who care about scientific inquiry and public lands are lining up similarly.)

First, the NPS relies very heavily on non-permanent staff who are hard to keep in line with threats to their job security because they don’t have any to start with. It’s been reported that the Badlands tweets were actually by a former employee who still had access to the account, which is the justification park management gave for deleting them. It’s possible this is just an excuse made up by management to save face in front of the new administration, but I doubt it. I think it’s most likely that Badlands hadn’t changed their Twitter password in a while, and a former seasonal or term interpretive ranger who still knew it was able to get in and make the tweets before anyone was the wiser.

So far so good, but it’s not actually good for an agency to rely so heavily on such a transient workforce. There are some good reasons for so much of the work being seasonal, to be sure. Many parks have very pronounced seasonal patterns in visitation that require big differences in staffing levels, especially for the jobs that require a lot of interaction with visitors (mostly interpretation and law enforcement). A lot of seasonal staff are young people at a transitional point in their lives, and a short seasonal gig fits well; this was the case for me at Chaco, and it was a great experience that I don’t regret at all. So I’m not saying the NPS should do away with seasonal work entirely. There are a lot of people, however, who decide to make park-rangering a career, which typically requires several seasonal jobs in different parks before a permanent opening opens up. These are not good jobs. The pay is low, and they come with very meager benefits, especially compared to permanent federal jobs. So people who decide to devote their lives to the serving their country through working in its parks have to go through several years of eking out a living with no job security before they get their first “real” job with some semblance of stability. (There are some interesting parallels here to academia.)

A better way to accommodate the seasonality of NPS work might be to expand the use of so-called “career-seasonal” jobs, which guarantee continued employment in subsequent seasons even though they only allow for a certain number of hours per year. This sort of arrangement isn’t for everyone, but it could help provide more stability to people who want to continue doing this work rather than moving on to something else. Whether or not this would be a viable option, some sort of shift away from such heavy reliance on short-term seasonal staff would have a lot of benefits, I think.

Similarly, I think the NPS overuses so-called “term” jobs, which are typically one to four years in duration, for work that is really a part of ongoing operations. Again, these jobs, which are more typically back-office administrative positions rather than visitor-facing ones, have fewer benefits than permanent ones and don’t pay particularly well, and they lead to the same pattern of career people moving from park to park for years before they can snag a permanent position. Unlike with seasonal jobs, I don’t see any valid justification for such extensive reliance on term employees for this sort of work. There is a role for this kind of job, but it should really be focused on short-term special projects rather than ongoing operations.

Secondly, the proliferation of renegade tweets on official accounts early on, and of renegade accounts once management began to crack down on those, is a symptom in part of the highly decentralized structure of the NPS compared to other land-management agencies. There are real problems with the considerable amounts of autonomy granted to park superintendents, which has contributed to recent scandals at parks like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. Tighter oversight of superintendents by regional management would be a good idea, I think.

But the decentralization goes well beyond them, and to some degree is a function of the nature of the work itself, as encapsulated in the term “ranger” itself. There’s just a limit to how much supervision even park management can exercise over individual employees when wandering around the park is a big part of the job. I can attest that when I was first starting to lead tours at Chaco I was told that a senior ranger would go on one of my own tours within the first couple weeks to check on me. It never happened, not just in the first two weeks but ever. Especially at smaller parks where staffing is always stretched pretty thin, there’s not a whole lot of effective supervision and management just has to trust that employees are doing things right. And again, many of these employees are seasonals without any real job security, which further limits the options management has for dealing with a rogue ranger. This has been another contributing factor to the scandals I mentioned above. Visitor feedback is one of the main mechanisms for supervision in this context, which is a good thing to keep in mind if you have a particularly bad (or good!) encounter with a ranger at a park as a visitor. They really do read those comment forms.

Luckily, in my experience the vast majority of NPS employees, regardless of their employment status, are conscientious and passionate about their jobs, so the lack of supervision and need to rely on trust aren’t as big a problem as they could be, although as the recent scandals have showed they can lead to big problems if management isn’t making a conscientious effort to exercise what supervision it can and to create a healthy working environment for all staff. The excessive autonomy of superintendents and especially the over-reliance on non-permanent staff are bigger problems, and the latter in particular is unconscionable even if it does enable some snarky tweets directed at Donald Trump.


Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

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