Faced with such stories, historians have long wondered how many people lived in the Americas at the time of contact. The first scholarly estimate of the indigenous population was made in by James Mooney, a distinguished ethnographer at the Smithsonian Institution.
Combing through old documents, he concluded that in North America had 1. Mooney's glittering reputation ensured that most subsequent researchers accepted his figure uncritically. That changed in , when Henry F. Despite the carefully neutral title, his argument was thunderous, its impact long-lasting. In the view of James Wilson, the author of The Earth Shall Weep , a history of indigenous Americans, Dobyns's colleagues "are still struggling to get out of the crater that paper left in anthropology.
Dobyns's estimate proved to be one of the opening rounds in today's culture wars. Dobyns began his exploration of pre-Columbian Indian demography in the early s, when he was a graduate student. At the invitation of a friend, he spent a few months in northern Mexico, which is full of Spanish-era missions. There he poked through the crumbling leather-bound ledgers in which Jesuits recorded local births and deaths.
Right away he noticed how many more deaths there were. The Spaniards arrived, and then Indians died—in huge numbers, at incredible rates. It hit him, Dobyns told me recently, "like a club right between the eyes. It took Dobyns eleven years to obtain his Ph. Along the way he joined a rural-development project in Peru, which until colonial times was the seat of the Incan empire.
Remembering what he had seen at the northern fringe of the Spanish conquest, Dobyns decided to compare it with figures for the south. 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 , 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.
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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 men. Smallpox was only the first epidemic.
Typhus probably in , influenza and smallpox together in , smallpox again in , diphtheria in , measles in —all ravaged the remains of Incan culture.
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Dobyns was the first social scientist to piece together this awful picture, and he naturally rushed his findings into print. Hardly anyone paid attention.
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But 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 million people. Another way of saying this is that in 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. He found a vast charnel house: human remains "promiscuously scattered about the beach, in great numbers.
Its few survivors, second lieutenant Peter Puget noted, were "most terribly pitted 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! So many epidemics occurred in the Americas, Dobyns argued, that the old data used by Mooney and his successors represented population nadirs.
From the few cases in which before-and-after totals are known with relative certainty, Dobyns estimated that in the first years of contact about 95 percent of the people in the Americas died—the worst demographic calamity in recorded history. Dobyns's ideas were quickly attacked as politically motivated, a push from the hate-America crowd to inflate the toll of imperialism. The attacks continue to this day.
These people, he says, were thrilled when Dobyns revisited the subject in a book, Their Numbers Become Thinned —and revised his own estimates upward. Perhaps Dobyns's most vehement critic is David Henige, a bibliographer of Africana at the University of Wisconsin, whose Numbers From Nowhere is a landmark in the literature of demographic fulmination.
When Henige wrote Numbers From Nowhere , the fight about pre-Columbian populations had already consumed forests' worth of trees; his bibliography is ninety pages long. And the dispute shows no sign of abating. More and more people have jumped in. This is partly because the subject is inherently fascinating.
But more likely the increased interest in the debate is due to the growing realization of the high political and ecological stakes. 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.
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He came to Florida with horses, soldiers, and pigs. From today's perspective, it is difficult to imagine the ethical system that would justify Soto's actions. For four years his force, looking for gold, wandered through what is now Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas, wrecking almost everything it touched. The inhabitants often fought back vigorously, but they had never before encountered an army with horses and guns.
Soto died of fever with his expedition in ruins; along the way his men had managed to rape, torture, enslave, and kill countless Indians. But the worst thing the Spaniards did, some researchers say, was entirely without malice—bring the pigs. According to Charles Hudson, an anthropologist at the University of Georgia who spent fifteen years reconstructing the path of the expedition, Soto crossed the Mississippi a few miles downstream from the present site of Memphis.
It was a nervous passage: the Spaniards were watched by several thousand Indian warriors. Utterly without fear, Soto brushed past the Indian force into what is now eastern Arkansas, through thickly settled land—"very well peopled with large towns," one of his men later recalled, "two or three of which were to be seen from one town.
In his usual fashion, Soto brazenly marched in, stole food, and marched out. After Soto left, no Europeans visited this part of the Mississippi Valley for more than a century. Early in whites appeared again, this time Frenchmen in canoes. The French passed through the area where Soto had found cities cheek by jowl. It was deserted—La Salle didn't see an Indian village for miles.