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Unformatted text preview: ma a a e a s e a e HistoriansnowagreethattheEuropeandiscoveryoftheAmericas butadebateisragingoverthesizeofpre-Columbianpopulations touched off wavesofepidemics, BY THE TIME Native Americans suffered theirbloody encounters with the Spanish conquistadorsand,later,European settlers andtheU.S.Army,theirranksmayalready have been decimated, not by the white man'sweaponsbutbyhisdiseases. In the past 25 years, researchers have realizedthatChristopher Columbus's dis- coveryoftheNew Worldunleashedawave ofpestilenceanddeaththatrivalstheBlack Death in 14th century Europe. With the earlyexplorerscame thehighlycontagious diseasesofEuropeancities-smallpox,mea- sles,typhus, scarletfever,andthelike-to which Native Americans had never been exposed. As these crowd diseases swept through,theywipedoutperhaps50to90% ofthepopulation. InmanyCaribbeanislands,nativepopula- tionssimplyvanished,saysAlfredCrosby,a historianattheUniversityofTexasatAus- tin.Althoughscholarsarestillarguingover howmanypeoplelivedontheislandsbefore Columbus,saysCrosby,"thereisno argu- mentthattheyaregone." Buttheretheagreementends.Whilefew nowdisputethatOldWorlddiseasescaused a horrendous population crash, debate is still raging on the magnitude, rate, and timingofthishemisphericdepopulation. One camp, led by ethnohistorian and authorHenry F. Dobyns, assertsthatthe Americas had ahuge native population- 112millioninall-thatwas virtuallywiped outbydiseaseaftertheSpanishlandedin 1492.Dobynsenvisionswaveafterwaveof pandemics, startingatthe initialpointof contact and then sweepingup and down both continents, killingNative Americans beforeEuropeansevercountedthem. FortheNorthAmericanpopulation,over whichthedebate ismost intense,Dobyns putstheestimateat18millionin1492.By 1900, that number had dropped to 500,000,maybeless. Others,likeGeorgeMilner,ananthropol- ogistatPennsylvaniaStateUniversity,say thatyes,epidemicsdidoccur,butnotquite so regularlyor with suchcatastrophicef- fects.AndthatmeansDobyns'snumbersare "enormouslyhigh," says Milner. Douglas Ubelaker ofthe Smithsonian Institution, another member of the "small number" camp, calculates the pre-Columbus North American total at just 2 million, versus Dobyns's 18million. Resolvingthesedifferenceswon'tbeeasy, becausetheevidence,asMilnerdescribesit, isoften"incomplete,spotty,andfrequently biased."Crosbylikensthe datato aRor- schachtest:"You interpretitaccordingto yourpreconceptions." In some places, documents from the 1500sareabundantandreliable.Inothers, theyarescantyorsimplynonexistent.And intheabsenceofwrittenrecords,archeolo- gists,ethnohistorians, and anthropologists mustuseavarietyoftechniques-andoften ahostofperilousassumptions-to tryto reconstructwhat happened when the Old andNew Worldscollidedin1492 (seebox on p. 1246). Not surprisingly, they are comingtoremarkablydifferentconclusions, aswas evident atarecentmeeting atthe Smithsonianon diseaseanddemographyin theAmericas....
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This note was uploaded on 08/30/2011 for the course LAH 2020 taught by Professor Victoruribe during the Fall '11 term at FIU.
- Fall '11