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disease_and_death

disease_and_death - ma 0 a a ease a e BY THE TIME Native...

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ma a 0 a ease a e Historians now agree that the European discovery of the Americas but a debate is raging over the size ofpre-Columbian populations touched off waves of epidemics, BY THE TIME Native Americans suffered their bloody encounters with the Spanish conquistadors and, later, European settlers and the U.S. Army, their ranks may already have been decimated, not by the white man's weapons but by his diseases. In the past 25 years, researchers have realized that Christopher Columbus's dis- covery of the New World unleashed a wave of pestilence and death that rivals the Black Death in 14th century Europe. With the early explorers came the highly contagious diseases of European cities-smallpox, mea- sles, typhus, scarlet fever, and the like-to which Native Americans had never been exposed. As these crowd diseases swept through, they wiped out perhaps 50 to 90% of the population. In many Caribbean islands, native popula- tions simply vanished, says Alfred Crosby, a historian at the University of Texas at Aus- tin. Although scholars are still arguing over how many people lived on the islands before Columbus, says Crosby, "there is no argu- ment that they are gone." But there the agreement ends. While few now dispute that Old World diseases caused a horrendous population crash, debate is still raging on the magnitude, rate, and timing of this hemispheric depopulation. One camp, led by ethnohistorian and author Henry F. Dobyns, asserts that the Americas had a huge native population- 112 million in all-that was virtually wiped out by disease after the Spanish landed in 1492. Dobyns envisions wave after wave of pandemics, starting at the initial point of contact and then sweeping up and down both continents, killing Native Americans before Europeans ever counted them. For the North American population, over which the debate is most intense, Dobyns puts the estimate at 18 million in 1492. By 1900, that number had dropped to 500,000, maybe less. Others, like George Milner, an anthropol- ogist at Pennsylvania State University, say that yes, epidemics did occur, but not quite so regularly or with such catastrophic ef- fects. And that means Dobyns's numbers are "enormously high," says Milner. Douglas Ubelaker of the Smithsonian Institution, another member of the "small number" camp, calculates the pre-Columbus North American total at just 2 million, versus Dobyns's 18 million. Resolving these differences won't be easy, because the evidence, as Milner describes it, is often "incomplete, spotty, and frequently biased." Crosby likens the data to a Ror- schach test: "You interpret it according to your preconceptions." In some places, documents from the 1500s are abundant and reliable. In others, they are scanty or simply nonexistent. And in the absence of written records, archeolo- gists, ethnohistorians, and anthropologists must use a variety of techniques-and often a host of perilous assumptions-to try to reconstruct what happened when the Old and New Worlds collided in 1492 (see box on p. 1246). Not surprisingly, they are coming to remarkably different conclusions, as was evident
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