The Americas

Following their invasions of the Caribbean, the sixteenth-century European explorers headed for the American mainland. Again, they encountered peoples with no previous exposure to the diseases the Europeans bore so easily — and again the result was a holocaust.

Whereas it now appears that influenza, carried by pigs aboard Columbus's ships, may have been the initial principal killers in Hispaniola (Guerra 1985, 1988), on the American mainland the initial major cause of death was smallpox (Crosby 1972; Dobyns 1983). Death rates were much higher in coastal than in inland areas, those in the former often approaching the extermination-level rates of the Caribbean (Borah and Cook 1969). Inland areas, however, though faring somewhat better in a comparative sense, still suffered at a level that strains comprehension. The population of central Mexico, for example, appears to have dropped by one-third, from about 25 million to less than 17 million, in a single decade following European contact. Within 75 years it had fallen by 95 percent (Cook and Borah 1960; Borah and Cook 1963).

So rapidly did the viruses and bacteria spread up and down and across the North and South American continents that historians have been unable to trace their paths with any precision. It is now clear, however, that the diseases moved across the land at a much faster pace than did the men who brought them, destroying whole populations long before their very existence could be known by the European invaders (Ramenofsky 1987).

Although the overall size of the population in the Americas at the time of European contact and its subsequent rate of collapse have long been a subject of much controversy, it is becoming increasingly apparent that both numbers represent magnitudes that earlier scholars had never imagined. It is possible, in fact, that the pre-Columbian Americas contained more than 100 million persons - more than resided in Europe, including Russia - at the time of the European arrival (Dobyns 1966).

Recent regional estimates continue to support the thesis, originally propounded by Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Borah, that massive and sudden depopulation was the rule in early native European contact situations throughout the Americas: From Peru, where a population of about 9 million dropped to 600,000 during the century following contact (a 93 percent decline rate), to Nicaragua, where it fell by more than 92 percent (Cook 1981; Newson 1987); from California, where the native population declined by 95 to 98 percent before bottoming out in the nineteenth century (Thornton 1987), to Florida, where it appears to have fallen by 75 percent in only 15 years and 95 percent within the first century of European contact (Dobyns 1983); from New England, where the

Patuxet tribe was extinguished in two years and the Massachusett tribe fell by 97 percent in two decades, to Guatemala, where the highland population alone dropped by 94 percent in little more than a century (Axtell 1985; Lovell 1985). Other examples abound.

Terrible as the epidemic invasions were in all these cases, it is now becoming evident that viral and bacterial assaults, by themselves, do not sufficiently account for such large population losses. As in the Caribbean, it appears likely that in the rest of the Americas the epidemics initiated a process of collapse, which then was exacerbated by the rapid withering away of village life and social supports, along with the pervading sense of despair and helplessness that was a natural concomitant of the epidemic firestorm (Neel 1977). In addition, comparative research now suggests that the fundamental cause of the most drastic population declines may well have been an overwhelming degree of infertility directly caused by the waves of smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, and venereal infection that attacked these epidemiologi-cally virginal populations (Stannard 1990).

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