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Blame it on the pigs

Excerpts from 1491

Read 1491 in The Atlantic Monthly, March 2002


Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought and altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact

by Charles C. Mann

The plane took off ... Clark Erickson and William Balée, the archaeologists, sat up front ... Erickson and Balée belong to a cohort of scholars that has radically challenged conventional notions of what the Western Hemisphere was like before Columbus. When I went to high school, in the 1970s, I was taught that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago, that they lived for the most part in small, isolated groups, and that they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation it remained mostly wilderness. My son picked up the same ideas at his schools.

One way to summarize the views of people like Erickson and Balée would be to say that in their opinion this picture of Indian life is wrong in almost every aspect. Indians were here far longer than previously thought, these researchers believe, and in much greater numbers. And they were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly dominated by humankind ...

Half the 102 people on the Mayflower made it through to spring, which to me was amazing. How, I wondered, did they survive?

In his history of Plymouth Colony, Bradford provided the answer: by robbing Indian houses and graves. The Mayflower first hove to at Cape Cod. An armed company staggered out. Eventually it found a recently deserted Indian settlement. The newcomershungry, cold, sick, dug up graves and ransacked houses, looking for underground stashes of corn. "And sure it was God's good providence that we found this corn," Bradford wrote, "for else we know not how we should have done." ...

When the colonists came to Plymouth, a month later, they set up shop in another deserted Indian village. All through the coastal forest the Indians had "died on heapes, as they lay in their houses," the English trader Thomas Morton noted. "And the bones and skulls upon the severall places of their habitations made such a spectacle" that to Morton the Massachusetts woods seemed to be "a new found Golgotha"the hill of executions in Roman Jerusalem.

To the Pilgrims' astonishment, one of the corpses they exhumed on Cape Cod had blond hair. A French ship had been wrecked there several years earlier. The Patuxet Indians imprisoned a few survivors. One of them supposedly learned enough of the local language to inform his captors that God would destroy them for their misdeeds. The Patuxet scoffed at the threat.

But the Europeans carried a disease, and they bequeathed it to their jailers. The epidemic (probably of viral hepatitis, according to a study by Arthur E. Spiess, an archaeologist at the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and Bruce D. Spiess, the director of clinical research at the Medical College of Virginia) took years to exhaust itself and may have killed 90 percent of the people in coastal New England. It made a huge difference to American history. "The good hand of God favored our beginnings," Bradford mused, by "sweeping away great multitudes of the natives ... that he might make room for us." ...

In 1966, ... Henry F. Dobyns published "Estimating Aboriginal American Population: An Appraisal of Techniques With a New Hemispheric Estimate," in the journal Current Anthropology ... He burrowed into the papers of the Lima cathedral and read apologetic Spanish histories. The Indians in Peru, Dobyns concluded, had faced plagues from the day the conquistadors showed up, in fact, before then: smallpox arrived around 1525, seven years ahead of the Spanish.

Brought to Mexico apparently by a single sick Spaniard, it swept south and eliminated more than half the population of the Incan empire. Smallpox claimed the Incan dictator Huayna Capac and much of his family, setting off a calamitous war of succession. So complete was the chaos that Francisco Pizarro was able to seize an empire the size of Spain and Italy combined with a force of 168 men.

Smallpox was only the first epidemic. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618all ravaged the remains of Incan culture. Dobyns was the first social scientist to piece together this awful picture, ...

Dobyns was already working on a second, related question: If all those people died, how many had been living there to begin with? Before Columbus, Dobyns calculated, the Western Hemisphere held ninety to 112 million people. Another way of saying this is that in 1491 more people lived in the Americas than in Europe ...

His argument was simple but horrific. It is well known that Native Americans had no experience with many European diseases and were therefore immunologically unprepared" virgin soil," in the metaphor of epidemiologists. What Dobyns realized was that such diseases could have swept from the coastlines initially visited by Europeans to inland areas controlled by Indians who had never seen a white person. The first whites to explore many parts of the Americas may therefore have encountered places that were already depopulated. Indeed, Dobyns argued, they must have done so.

Peru was one example, the Pacific Northwest another. In 1792 the British navigator George Vancouver led the first European expedition to survey Puget Sound. He found a vast charnel house: human remains "promiscuously scattered about the beach, in great numbers." Smallpox, Vancouver's crew discovered, had preceded them. Its few survivors, second lieutenant Peter Puget noted, were "most terribly pitted ... indeed many have lost their Eyes."

In Pox Americana, (2001), Elizabeth Fenn, a historian at George Washington University, contends that the disaster on the northwest coast was but a small part of a continental pandemic that erupted near Boston in 1774 and cut down Indians from Mexico to Alaska.

Because smallpox was not endemic in the Americas, colonials, too, had not acquired any immunity. The virus, an equal-opportunity killer, swept through the Continental Army and stopped the drive into Quebec. The American Revolution would be lost, Washington and other rebel leaders feared, if the contagion did to the colonists what it had done to the Indians.

"The small Pox! The small Pox!" John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail. "What shall We do with it?" In retrospect, Fenn says, "One of George Washington's most brilliant moves was to inoculate the army against smallpox during the Valley Forge winter of '78." Without inoculation smallpox could easily have given the United States back to the British ...

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On May 30, 1539, Hernando de Soto landed his private army near Tampa Bay, in Florida. Soto, as he was called, was a novel figure: half warrior, half venture capitalist. He had grown very rich very young by becoming a market leader in the nascent trade for Indian slaves. The profits had helped to fund Pizarro's seizure of the Incan empire, which had made Soto wealthier still.

Looking quite literally for new worlds to conquer, he persuaded the Spanish Crown to let him loose in North America. He spent one fortune to make another. He came to Florida with 200 horses, 600 soldiers, and 300 pigs ...

After Soto left, no Europeans visited this part of the Mississippi Valley for more than a century. Early in 1682 whites appeared again, this time Frenchmen in canoes. One of them was Réné-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle. The French passed through the area where Soto had found cities cheek by jowl. It was desertedLa Salle didn't see an Indian village for 200 miles ...

About fifty settlements existed in this strip of the Mississippi when Soto showed up, according to Anne Ramenofsky, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico. By La Salle's time the number had shrunk to perhaps ten, some probably inhabited by recent immigrants. Soto "had a privileged glimpse" of an Indian world, Hudson says. "The window opened and slammed shut. When the French came in and the record opened up again, it was a transformed reality. A civilization crumbled. The question is, how did this happen?"

The question is even more complex than it may seem. Disaster of this magnitude suggests epidemic disease. In the view of Ramenofsky and Patricia Galloway, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, the source of the contagion was very likely not Soto's army but its ambulatory meat locker: his 300 pigs ...

The calamity wrought by Soto apparently extended across the whole Southeast. The Coosa city-states, in western Georgia, and the Caddoan-speaking civilization, centered on the Texas-Arkansas border, disintegrated soon after Soto appeared. The Caddo had had a taste for monumental architecture: public plazas, ceremonial platforms, mausoleums. After Soto's army left, notes Timothy K. Perttula, an archaeological consultant in Austin, Texas, the Caddo stopped building community centers and began digging community cemeteries. Between Soto's and La Salle's visits, Perttula believes, the Caddoan population fell from about 200,000 to about 8,500a drop of nearly 96 percent.

In the eighteenth century the tally shrank further, to 1,400. An equivalent loss today in the population of New York City would reduce it to 56,000, not enough to fill Yankee Stadium. "That's one reason whites think of Indians as nomadic hunters," says Russell Thornton, an anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Everything else, all the heavily populated urbanized societies, was wiped out." ...

In 1810 Henry Brackenridge came to Cahokia, in what is now southwest Illinois, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis. Born close to the frontier, Brackenridge was a budding adventure writer; his Views of Louisiana, published three years later, was a kind of nineteenth-century Into Thin Air, with terrific adventure but without tragedy. Brackenridge had an eye for archaeology, and he had heard that Cahokia was worth a visit.

When he got there, trudging along the desolate Cahokia River, he was "struck with a degree of astonishment." Rising from the muddy bottomland was a "stupendous pile of earth," vaster than the Great Pyramid at Giza. Around it were more than a hundred smaller mounds, covering an area of five square miles. At the time, the area was almost uninhabited ...

The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson's history of Indian America, puts the comparison bluntly: "the western hemisphere was larger, richer, and more populous than Europe." Much of it was freer, too. Europeans, accustomed to the serfdom that thrived from Naples to the Baltic Sea, were puzzled and alarmed by the democratic spirit and respect for human rights in many Indian societies, especially those in North America ...

Hernando de Soto's expedition stomped through the Southeast for four years and apparently never saw bison. More than a century later, when French explorers came down the Mississippi, they saw "a solitude unrelieved by the faintest trace of man," the nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman wrote. Instead the French encountered bison, "grazing in herds on the great prairies which then bordered the river."

To Charles Kay, the reason for the buffalo's sudden emergence is obvious. Kay is a wildlife ecologist in the political-science department at Utah State University. In ecological terms, he says, the Indians were the "keystone species" of American ecosystems. A keystone species, according to the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, is a species "that affects the survival and abundance of many other species." Keystone species have a disproportionate impact on their ecosystems. Removing them, Wilson adds, "results in a relatively significant shift in the composition of the [ecological] community."

When disease swept Indians from the land, Kay says, what happened was exactly that. The ecological ancien régime collapsed, and strange new phenomena emerged. In a way this is unsurprising; for better or worse, humankind is a keystone species everywhere. Among these phenomena was a population explosion in the species that the Indians had kept down by hunting. After disease killed off the Indians, Kay believes, buffalo vastly extended their range ...


Clark Erickson

Betty J. Meggers

Wilderness Act of 1964

The Native Population of the Americas in 1492

The Earth Shall Weep

Pox Americana,

The Ecological Indian

Numbers From Nowhere

Manitou and Providence

Views of Louisiana

European Discovery of America

The Columbian Exchange: Biological Consequences of 1492

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900


Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise

Anna C. Roosevelt

Field Museum of Natural History

Moundbuilders of the Amazon

Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

Reinventing Nature?

The Great New Wilderness Debate

The Atlantic Monthly; March 2002; 1491; Volume 289, No. 3; 41-53.

Interview of Charles C. Mann by Katie Bacon

BACON: ... Waves of different diseases decimated the population of the Americas, smallpox, typhoid, bubonic plague, whooping cough, and other diseases that Indians had no resistance to were all brought here by Columbus or those who followed in his wake. But why didn't Indian diseases have a similar effect on Europeans, either directly or indirectly when the diseases were carried back to Europe?

MANN: There just doesn't seem to have been nearly as many Indian diseases. "The exchange of infectious diseases ... between the Old World and its American and Australasian colonies has been wondrously one-sided," wrote Alfred Crosby in Ecological Imperialism, another terrific book. "Venereal syphilis may be the New World's only important disease export..."

[ www.sciencenews.org/articles/20080119/fob7.asp

ARTICLE from Scince News, 1-19-08, by Bruce Bower

``Infectious Voyagers: DNA suggests Columbus took syphilis to Europe

Goodbye Columbus, hello syphilis. When Renaissance-era folk bade farewell to Christopher Columbus and his crew, little did they know that the New World explorers would return with syphilis infections that eventually triggered devastating outbreaks of the sexually transmitted disease in Europe.

That's the implication of the first study to probe the genetic makeup and evolutionary relationships of strains of bacteria, known as treponemes, that cause syphilis and related diseases.

"Our data support the hypothesis that syphilis, or some progenitor of it, came from the New World," says geneticist Kristen N. Harper of Emory University in Atlanta, who directed the new investigation.

The first recorded syphilis epidemic in Europe occurred in 1495. Scientists have argued for decades about whether syphilis originated in the Americas and spread elsewhere via European explorers or arose much earlier in Europe ...

Harper's team isolated 21 genetic regions from 26 strains of treponemes found in various parts of the world. The researchers obtained samples of these strains from collections in North America and Europe.

These bacteria cause distinct diseases that share some symptoms but spread in different ways. Syphilis proliferates through sexual contact. Yaws and endemic syphilis, characterized by similar reddish sores around the mouth and other areas, primarily affect children through skin-to-skin or oral contact ...

A fourth strain, pinta, was once found in Central and South America and mainly caused skin discolorations ...

In a critical comparison, Harper's team also examined a never-before studied strain of yaws obtained by medical workers from two members of a relatively isolated foraging group in Guyana.

Syphilis-causing bacterial strains arose recently and resemble the yaws strain from Guyana, the researchers report in the January PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases ... ''

From Science News, Vol. 173, No. 3, Jan. 19, 2008, p. 38.]

BACON: As late as 1987, you point out, a standard American history textbook "described the Americas before Columbus as 'empty of mankind and its works.'" How do you think the history books fifteen years from now will read? Will students ever study the lost civilization of the Ancient Incas or the Caddoans as they now do the Babylonians or the Phoenicians?

MANN: Studying the Incas would really be something, wouldn't it? I can see the college class: Totalitarianism from Machu Picchu to Moscow. Myself, I'd hope they would learn something about the Northwest Coast Indians, who had wonderfully interesting economic institutions; the Iroquois, who so importantly affected both American history and Americans' concepts about freedom ...

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