Category Archives: American history

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 the changed how changed 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 was 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 acceptible, 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 identiy 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 Connecticutt 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.

On 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 productive 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. 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 disease,  it also opens up views into colonial life that even contemporaries tried to ignore. Wether their demise to disease was believed by contemporaries to be 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.

Autumn Reading

Autumn 15

While autumn is not officially over yet, December always seems like winter to me so here is my reading review from autumn.
This season I’m introducing a book review rating system. On my scale, an average book would get three scopes; a good book, four; and only the extraordinary book gets five scopes. I probably will not rate translations because I don’t feel qualified to evaluate them.


Paul Kelton. Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophes in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715. University of Arizona Press, 2007.   microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)

Catherine Cameron, Paul Kelton, and Alan Swedlund, eds. Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America. U of Arizona Press, 2015. microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)

Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre: Chronicle, Part III edited by Withold Witakowski, Liverpool University Press, 1997. (includes the largest section of John of Ephesus’ Church History/History of the Plague)

Zlata Blažina Tomic and Vesna Blažina  Expelling the Plague: The Health Office and the Implementation of Quarantine in Dubrovnik, 1377-1533. McGill-Queens University Press, 2015.microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)

Dorothy Crawford. Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History. Oxford University Press, 2007. microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)

Susan Mattern. The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire. Oxford University Press, 2013. microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)


Meier, D. (2004). Man and environment in the marsh area of Schleswig–Holstein from Roman until late Medieval times. Quaternary International, 112(1), 55–69.


Stanley, J.-D., Bernasconi, M. P., & Jorstad, T. F. (2008). Pelusium, an Ancient Port Fortress on Egypt’s Nile Delta Coast: Its Evolving Environmental Setting from Foundation to Demise. Journal of Coastal Research, 242, 451–462.

Schats, R. (2015). Malaise and mosquitos: osteoarchaeological evidence for malaria in the medieval Netherlands. Analecta Praehistoricaleidensia, 45, 133–140.

MacMaster, T. J. (2015). “Not With a Bang?” The Economics of Trade and the End of Byzantine North Africa. In M. Di Rodi, P. Frankopan, M. Lau, & C. Franchi (Eds.), Landscapes of Power: Selected Papers From the XV Oxford University Byzantine Society International Graduate Conference (pp. 73–91).

SHWARTZ, L. (2013). Gargano Comes to Rome: Castel Sant“Angelo”s Historical Origins. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 64(03), 453–475. (Blogged about here: St Michael, the Plague and Castel Sant’ Angelo,  in 2012 after his Kalamazoo talk. I just found in in print much as I remembered in the blog post.)

Rasmussen, S., Allentoft, M. E., Nielsen, K., Orlando, L., Sikora, M., Sjögren, K.-G., et al. (2015). Early Divergent Strains of Yersinia pestis in Eurasia 5,000 Years Ago. Cell, 163(3), 571–582. (See the previous post on this blog!)

Sun, Y.-C., Jarrett, C. O., Bosio, C. F., & Hinnebusch, B. J. (2014). Retracing the Evolutionary Path that Led to Flea-Borne Transmission of Yersinia pestis. Cell Host and Microbe, 15(5), 578–586.

McCormick, M. (2015). Tracking mass death during the fall of Rome’s empire (I). Journal of Roman Archaeology, 28, 325–357.

Daniel Melleno. (2014) North Sea Networks: Trade and Communication from the Seventh to the Tenth Century. Comitatus. 45:65-90.

microscope23 (1)Icon made by Freepik from

Challenging Virgin Soil Epidemic Assumptions 

The depopulation of Native Americans during the 16th to 18th centuries, one result of the ‘Columbian Exchange’, has been held up as the ultimate example of virgin soil epidemics. The emphasis put on the ‘virginity’ of the native population, bordering on biological determinism, has absolved the colonial powers of a multitude of sins. Some archaeologists and historians of early North America have begun to challenge the emphasis placed on the virulence of the new pathogens in the native population without minimizing the depopulation itself. They have uncovered multiple additional factors that led to such a drastic loss of native Americans.

Chiaves la florida, 1584
Chiaves la florida, 1584

I recently finished Paul Kelton’s Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophes in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715 (2007) and it was illuminating. He is covering the area of the modern Carolinas, Georgia, northern Florida, and Alabama and contiguous frontiers. This area was colonized by the Spanish, English and the French toward the Mississippi. These infant colonies set off an extensive reorganization of native tribes as trade goods shifted the balance of power throughout the region.

The colonial powers were initially interested in resource extraction over building large colonies. This region had only two easily exploitable resources — deer skins and slaves. This sparked a period of nearly constant intra-tribal warfare and the creation of confederations for protection.

Kelton shows that native depopulation did not occur solely due to epidemics, but due to a set of actions taken by the colonial powers primarily in Carolina. In the first century of the English colonies, native tribes became dependent upon trade good especially guns, powder and shot that were paid for with deer skins and captives. Moreover, the English wanted primarily women and children as captives. Eventually this led to a gender imbalance in most tribes preyed upon for captives. This made it nearly impossible for the tribes to recover from severe epidemics. Having enough women of reproductive age is absolutely necessary for population recovery after an epidemic or any other sudden population loss.

Kelton does not look at human genetic analyses but this makes me think of population analyses in Central and South America where native mtDNA lineages (via matrilineal only) are common but native Y chromosomes are very rare. Many female captives would become wives to immigrant men and their offspring are advantaged over all North American native children. Kelton never really explores the destination of native captives/slaves but implies that many went to markets outside of the English colonies. He implies that it was primarily when native captives were exhausted that Carolina turns to more African slaves.

As the tribes disintegrated from the stresses of warfare and slave raiding, they reorganized into the confederations we are more familiar with, like the Cherokee, Creeks, and Choctaw. None of the groups existed before the colonial period.  In the process of reformation many villages were abandoned. They resettled in a tighter configurations and some built palisades for the first time. In the past many of these settlements were claimed to have been depopulated by epidemics.

Natives in the south-east were primarily farmers who supplemented their diet with venison, fish and other salvaged sources of protein. Without domestic animals for protein, their nutrition was maintained by a precarious balance of crops liable to be disrupted by climate and social disruption. Evasion of slave raiding parties made it difficult to grow crops (most maize) and gather supplementary wild food (deer, fish, oysters, fruit/berries etc). Famine coupled with enteric disease has to be a significant factor in any explanation of native depopulation.  Even before 1492, native populations showed signs of nutritional stress and short lifespans, sometimes with average lifespans in the low twenties.

I’ve focused on non-epidemics causes of depopulation so far because this was the newest material to me. Kelton postulates that malaria was the first epidemic disease to spread among the native population. Malaria is likely to have become entrenched in wetlands early, but how quickly it spread is more questionable and he seems to minimize its demographic impact.  From my own research on the mid-Mississippi valley, malaria makes its first appearance in the records with the arrival of the English even though the French and Spanish had been in the valley long before.

Smallpox is generally considered the most dangerous pathogen of the Columbian Exchange. Kelton acknowledges that smallpox first came to the Spanish missions in Florida and Georgia, but asserts that these epidemics were limited to the mission system. Native North Americans did not have the population density or extensive trade networks found in Mexico and further south. He shows that smallpox (and perhaps measles) did not begin to spread between tribal groups at distance from the colonial settlements until the English facilitated native enslavement system, always done through native partners, developed. By the mid-18th century, native tribes stopped cooperating with the British to sell captives creating a more direct confrontation between the European colonies and all native groups, and increasing the importation of African slaves.

Supposed virgin soil epidemics have been an attractive explanation for demographic collapses in part because it comparatively simple, absolving humans of more responsibility. Humans are portrayed as being victims of biology. Finding other causes does not clear new pathogens of a significant role in native depopulation. Epidemics remain an integral piece of the puzzle, but only a piece.

Reference: Paul Kelton, Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.