pre-1492

edited population figures

Around this time of year, sometimes for a brief moment we reflect as a culture on Native Americans.  Who were they?  What really happened when the colonists arrived?  Could it be true that we underestimate their true pre-Columbian population count by 95-98%? 

Even though we would like to think we know the “real history”, the fact is that over time we have viewed the sequence of events from such a narrow prism that what we learn today in school is actually so far from the truth that is not only misleading, but rather deceptive.   Maybe its deception did not occur by chance.

The truth is that when Europeans first encountered the Native Americans or “Indians” both groups saw themselves as superior to the other.  Typically this is known as ethnocentrism.

There are quite a few Native American accomplishments that either were equal or surpassed European technology in 1491.  Sometimes they had the same technologies as Europeans, but they decided not to use them for other purposes.  For example, the Olmecs in Mexico had the wheel, but they used it for toys.  The Inkas had iron, but they choose to forge softer metals that were more reflective to light.  According to Heather Lechtman, an anthropologist from MIT ‘s Center for Materials Research in Archeology and Ethnology in the 1960s, “Europeans sought to optimize metals’ ’hardness, strength toughness and sharpness’ while the Inka’s valued ‘plasticity, malleability, and toughness’” (Mann 94).

I will not create an exhaustive list of Native American technological advancements before 1491.  The main objective of this post is to disclaim the tale that when Europeans arrived, Native Americans were so stunned by foreign technology that they did not know to defend themselves and submitted to European rule.  Europeans gained the advantage, but only when the reasons below led to the systematic death of about 95-98% of the Native American population within the first 130 years.

Europeans gained control over the Americas for a few reasons:

  1. By unintentionally carrying with them many pathogens.  It was the norm that Europeans encountered “empty lands” because these diseases were disseminated through the Native American trade network way before tribes actually encountered Europeans.  Often all Europeans had to do was to make initial contact with a group.  For example, a smallpox outbreak in Hispaniola in Nov./Dec. of 1518 is thought to had spread to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Central America, Panama and then through the Inkan empire according to a young 1960s anthropologist Henry F. Dobyns.  When Europeans were fortunate/unfortunate enough to encounter Indian communities that had not yet been decimated by European diseases, it normally did not take the natives long before they contracted them and spread them on through their own trade networks (Mann 105).
  2. In line with the first reason, Indians had much more homogeneous human leukocyte antigen (HLA) profiles.  According to Francis L. Black, a Yale virologist in the 1970s, Indians had “a very limited spectrum of responses” to his vaccines (Mann 177).  In addition, it is now believed the Indians carried helper T-cells that primarily fought parasites instead of microorganisms.  (The body produces two types of help T-cells, but one type is always predominant.  The production of either parasite or microbial fighting helping T-cells depends on one’s environment.  Europeans were accustomed to fighting off microorganisms versus parasites and therefore evolved differently in accordance to their biological needs) (Mann 121).
  3. Europeans played Indians against one another.  The Massachusetts used the presence of the Europeans to their advantage.  They sought to be the middleman between European goods and other Native American goods and effectively created a monopoly on the trade in their area.  When the Massachusetts felt threatened by a neighboring Indian tribe in Rhode Island, they made the Pilgrims align with them militarily because it was in the Massachusetts’ interest.  From this experience, Europeans in New England learned to use Indian political fragmentation to their advantage (35-70 Mann).  Similar situations occurred in other parts of the Americas where subdued groups previously under the Triple Alliance or Inkan rule, decided to try their odds with alliances with the Spanish.
  4. Pure luck.  The Spaniards for instance arrived close to the Inka capital city of Qosqo (Cusco) literally at the end of an extremely bloody civil war (really the only significant conflict that had ever occurred in Inkan history).  The victor, Atawallpa, had lived his whole life in Ecuador and was just returning to the capital city he barely knew.  His father had died of a mysterious disease that was already claiming large scores of the Inka population in the northern reaches of the Empire (See #1).  Regardless, Pizarro’s victory was absolute and truly legendary.  During his first encounter he slaughtered the entire Inkan royal army and Atawallpa was held as ransom.  With only 168 men, Pizarro did not sustain a single casualty (Mann 93).

However, Pizarro’s experience in Cajamarca against Atawallpa was not the norm.  Cortés had a tougher time against the Aztecs in Mexico than his contemporary.  One of the reasons why Europeans even survived the initial years was because the Native American and European perspectives on warfare were entirely different.  Indians typically created “hegemonic empires” or rather they created vassal states of the losers and let them share in their gains.  They made the conquered lands benefit economically and even may have given the losers tribute initially.  This strategy was implemented primarily because the natives did not have fast-moving animals, such as horses, to forcefully keep together an empire.  This was in contrast to the European style of empire, which was a mix between “territorial” and “hegemonic” (Mann 81).  Also, aside from empire building, Native Americans strategy was not to “annihilate” the enemy but rather conflict was sought to either gain status or to avenge an insult.  Indians were not out to “conquer” or “exterminate” the enemy (Mann 48).  The Triple Alliance (or more commonly known as the Aztecs) could have killed every last one of Cortés’ men, but chose to let the few remaining survivors (including Cortés) to escape (Mann 144).  If they had chased down Cortés after the battle of Tenochtitlan, history might have been written differently.

When Europeans arrived at other times, they had much less success.  Out of the 14 provinces established by Rei João III of Portugal in Brazil, only two survived.  Maybe there was a reason the Portuguese began colonizing Brazil in the northeast.  Possibly areas around Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Paraná were more densely populated by Indians.  Also, every Spanish attempt to colonize Florida between 1510 and 1560 failed.  The French barely held onto the St. Lawrence and didn’t even try to colonize New England (Mann 105).  It seems the British arrived in the areas at just the right time, after the Portuguese, Italians, French, and probably the Vikings.

When Indians had previous contact with Europeans (and were fortunate enough to not contract any diseases), they quickly adapted.  The Abenakis of Maine also had Venetian jewelry when Casper Corte-Real of Portugal found them in 1501.  He abducted 50 natives when he convinced them to board his ship (Mann 29).  Maybe this was a sign that Corte-Real was not the first European they ever traded with, since the natives seemed to intrinsically trust him.  When Giovanni da Verrazzano arrived in the same area in 1523/24 the Abenaki did not allow the Italians to dock, and they traded their goods by rope over the water (Mann 54).  By 1616, a little further south even the Indians had begun to trade using ships with sails in the Long Island sound.

The English Pilgrims were described as unadapt to colonize the new world, since they were not used to “hard living” and essentially colonized “Plimoth” in order to flip a quick profit.  They generally did not want to explore the surrounding areas (probably partially because they were still very inhabited).  Once their diseases (probably hepatitis A) began to spread to the Massachusetts and neighboring tribes friendly to the Massachusetts, about 90% of the native population was whipped out within three years according to Thomas Morton.  From there, more than fifty of the first colonial villages were actually located right on top of emptied Indian communities (Mann 163).

Many experts now believe that the mortality rates we accept as accurate were actually about 2-5% of the actual population pre-Columbus.  Over the course of history, “the numbers” were gradually and repeatedly reduced by historical experts.  The Spanish were probably the only Europeans who really saw how populous the Americas really were.  De Soto began exploring and demanding tribute from the Indians throughout the southeastern United States in 1539, starting from his landing site around Tampa Bay, Florida.  In contemporary Arkansas, he noted about fifty large Native American towns.  When the French returned in 1682, there were only about ten.  One theory for the disappearance is that after De Soto’s pigs infected wild deer and turkey, the French found a more desolate America 150 years later (Mann 110-11).  Mann paints the population decimation in relatable terms.  It was as though New York City was reduced to 56,000 people, a number below the requirement to fill Yankee Stadium (112).

The most important point I want to illustrate, is that the population calculations for original Native American populations kept on decreasing.  18th century Jesuit Francisco Javier Clavijero calculated the population of modern day Mexico alone to be 30 million pre-Colombian.  By the 1920’s North American historians stated that 40-50 million Native Americans lived in the entire hemisphere (from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego).  In the 1940s, the number was reduced to only 8-10 million natives between both North and South America (Mann 15).

       Dobyns believes that between 90 and 112 million people lived in the Americas pre-Columbus (Mann 108).  If this figure is correct, this would mean that there were more Native Americans than people living in Europe.  The Mexican Plateau alone held 25.2 million natives (Mann 107).  Tenchtitlan, the Triple Alliance or Aztec’s capital was larger than Paris – than the biggest city in Europe around this time.  To paint this in another context, China had approximately 110 million and India has 105 million around 1500.  Here are the numbers according to another source that depict the “typical” population counts according to contemporary historians.

If these calculations are correct, this would imply up to a 98% percent mortality rate in Native Americans within the first 130 years on contact with Europeans (Mann 106).  Considering that the major expansion of the colonies occurred after this time period, maybe their expansion was the result of the decimation of Native American cultures and populations more than any other natural or ingenious attributes on their part.

Go here to know more about this book and its author Charles C. Mann.

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