Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America


Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America. Edited by Catherine Cameron, Paul Kelton and Alan Swedlund. University of Arizona Press, 2015.

With the number of emerging infectious diseases climbing and new revelations about plague’s past, this book is a timely caution to the rhetoric surrounding so-called virgin soil epidemics. This book is the publication of an interdisciplinary conference held to discuss the causes of Native American depopulation hosted by the Amerind Foundation. Essays by David Jones, George Milner, Clark Spenser Larsen, Debra Martin, Gerardo Gutiérrez, Alan Swedlund, Catherine Cameron, Paul Kelton, Katheleen Hull, and James Brooks are included. Most of these essays are case studies in depopulation of specific areas.

David Jones opens the book with a discussion of the rhetoric surrounding so-called virgin soil epidemics that are credited with being the primary cause of native depopulation. Admitting the influence of his mentor evolutionary biologist Stephan J Gould, Jones favors social and contingent causes for depopulation over biological determinism. Perhaps the influential role that Gould played in my own formation as a biologist makes me sympathetic to Jones’ argument, but I can certainly live with that. Genetic determinism, in my opinion, is the easy way out to explain what can not be yet understood. His argument against the sweeping rhetoric of ‘virgin soil epidemics’ is, I think, very effective.

Milner’s chapter tackles the tricky problem of the pre-contact population collapse of the Mississippian culture centered at the mid-continent site of Cahokia, near St. Louis. This had been the largest and most (archaeologically) complex native culture in North America but it collapsed so entirely that the mid-continent was still sparsely populated when Europeans arrived a couple of centuries later. Medieval Cahokia had been more populous than contemporary London. The example of Cahokia must give us pause for assuming that unrecorded demographic collapses that lack signs of massive destruction must be due to epidemics.

Larsen, Martin, Gutiérrez, and Hull cover the effect of the Spanish mission system in Florida, the Pueblo of the Southwest,  Mexico, and California respectively. Structural violence was seen throughout the Spanish mission system from hard, forced labor. Larsen discusses how changing landscapes and lifestyles make natives more susceptible to infection. He sees a dramatic rise in cribra orbitalis/porotic hyperostosis as a sign of iron deficiency when it may actually be malaria. Wet Florida would have been susceptible to endemic malaria and a reservoir for it to spread through the southeast. Martin looks at the bioarchaeological evidence for a ‘creeping genocide’ in the peublos of the south west. Sporatic massacres of pueblo communities were used to enforce compliance by the wider culture. Cultural resilience was also stressed to the breaking point by a prolonged period of drought and environmental deterioration in the southwest that left them with marginal nutritional sufficiency. In this stressed environment, smallpox spread widely among the pueblo communities. Epidemics were part of a set of practices used to destroy or reorient native culture to make it acceptable, and more importantly controllable for the Spanish. Gutiérrez focuses on the methods and effects of identity erasure on demographics. The caste system that developed was very systematic “virtuous cycle”  with the goal of eliminating native identity and indeed native (and African) ‘blood’ while maximizing Spanish identity and ‘blood’.

Chapters by Swedlund,  Cameron, and Kelton examine tribes that dealt more closely with the English colonies and early American states. Swedlund looks at the great smallpox epidemic of 1633-34 beyond coastal New England up into the Connecticut River valley. Cameron reviews the demographic effects of warfare and captive taking had on the Southeast, the northern Pays d’en Haunt (Great Lakes region), and the Southwest tribes. Colonial politics and trade caused more intertribal warfare than warfare directly with European colonists. Kelton writes about the disastrous experiences of the Cherokee with warfare, famine, and disease during the American Revolutionary War.

One of the overarching problems is the difficulty in determining population size before contact and then for the first couple centuries of the colonial period. Problematically, in the past, abandoned villages have been assumed to be extinct due to disease rather than simply relocation or the movement of refugees to other tribes. The reality is that many areas that are fertile with Old World methods and domestic livestock were very difficult to make products with native resources.

Over arching themes that I noticed which point toward other factors than just “germs” causing depopulation:

  1.  Use of starvation as an intentional weapon accomplished by burning fields and disrupting the agricultural cycle.
  2. The selective taking of women of reproductive age as captives/slaves causing a gender imbalance that prevented populations from rebounding.
  3. Selling captives to slavers rather than incorporating them into the tribe as pre-contact tribes often did to bolster their numbers and replace their dead. Sales were often to repay debts for European trade goods, especially weapons and ammunition.
  4.  Use of tribes as proxy militias by European powers to create intertribal warfare and recruitment of tribes by the British during the American revolution and war of 1812. Set up an adversarial relationship with the young American nation.
 In effect, I think the process they are all searching for is a syndemic that combined epidemics, nutritional deficiencies, systemic violence, slavery, and forced assimilation. Unfortunately, they didn’t really consult the syndemic literature.

One of the things I took away from this collection is an appreciation for how long it takes to develop a fully agricultural culture. Many Native American groups were still in transition. Lacking domestic animals other than the dog, they were very vulnerable to climate and social disorder disrupting their agricultural cycle and yield. Some tribes adopted domestic animals from Europeans quickly. Colonists were greatly alarmed at how quickly the Cherokee adopted raising hogs and European crops, bringing them nutritional stability. Of course, horses are were adopted so well by natives that its hard for many of us today to even think of Native Americans without them.  The idea that domestic animals were worth the effort may have been what was missing most, rather than a lack of animals capable of being domesticated.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested the dynamics of depopulation, “dark ages”, and most importantly for comparison to other “virgin soil” epidemic situations. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that other renowned virgin soil epidemics like the first and second plague pandemics occurred in times of ecological and social stress in addition to the epidemic in question. By opening the explanations for Native American depopulation up to other causes than the disease,  it also opens up views into colonial life that even contemporaries tried to ignore. Whether their demise to disease was believed by contemporaries to be the divine will or by modern historians as biological determinism, it has diverted attention away from the very human causes of depopulation and in some cases genocide.