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NATIVE AMERICANS AND THE SPREAD OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES

Explorers are biological weapons in that they carry diseases for which native populations have no immunities. Europeans brought smallpox, measles, bubonic plague, influenza, typhus, diphtheria, and scarlet fever to the New World, and close American Indian communities spread these diseases, which killed most of the American Indians in the New World before they had ever seen a European.

Good roads in the Mesoamerican empires and nomadic migration by the North American Indians allowed diseases to spread quickly. In addition, American Indians had no tradition of quarantine, which Europe had learned to use for epidemics, and so they stayed close to their sick friends, unknowingly facilitating the transmission of infectious diseases.

When explorers spread out to settle new lands, their diseases went with them. Friendly Taino natives met Columbus when he landed on Hispaniola, the island the Spanish named for themselves. Within 50 years, the population of the local people on Hispaniola — estimated at 1 million — had fallen to only 200 survivors. The conquistadores managed to defeat big American Indian empires largely because these empires were already collapsing from within. With friends and allies dying all around them, the American Indians fought desperate wars among themselves for the few resources left. Fighting and illness left them relatively easy conquests for the Europeans.

Europeans had fished in southern New England waters for more than 100 years before the Pilgrims landed in 1620. They met the American Indians and, without meaning to, passed on diseases. The native inhabitants had no resistance to the illnesses brought by the Europeans, and within a few years, a plague wiped out 90 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England. This death rate was unknown in all previous human experience. Even the Black Plague in the 1300s left 70 percent of Europe's population alive.

In the face of the horrible losses caused by the epidemics attacking their communities, many American Indians felt that their Supreme Being had abandoned them. Some survivors of the Cherokee lost all confidence in their religion and destroyed the sacred objects of their tribe. American Indians were so reduced in numbers that they offered little real opposition to European invaders; some even looked upon the settlers for possible salvation.

In 1491, before the arrival of European explorers, the native population of North and South America may have been 100 million, while the entire population of Europe at the time was 70 million. By 1900, the American Indian population of the New World was less than 1 million — a drop of 99 percent from Columbus's day. By that time, the United States had only 250,000 American Indians. If colonists hadn't been able to take over lands that the American Indians had already cleared and cultivated, and if the American Indian population hadn't suffered devastating epidemics, the settlers would have had a far more difficult time of taking over the New World for themselves.

Example

Question: What was the largest cause of death for American Indians during the European conquest?

Answer: The largest cause of death were diseases unintentionally spread by explorers.

Today, people are proud of their American Indian blood. In the 2010 U.S. census, more than 5 million Americans listed themselves as all or part American Indian.

UNEVEN GIFT EXCHANGE

What settlers brought to the New World versus what they took home leaves the American Indians way ahead on the gift exchange. The Old World brought death and domination to the people who lived in North and South America; the New World gave the Old World a new life. Eventually, European ideas of individual freedom would bring more options to American Indian survivors, but in the short run, the settlers profited far more than the American Indians. Here are two examples of how exploration into the New World changed Europe:

- Spain was poor and barely united when Columbus sailed. Through New World gold and silver, Spain became the richest country in Europe within a few decades.

- After the importation of corn, potatoes, pineapples, tomatoes, beans, vanilla, and chocolate from the New World, Europe had a chance to expand both its power and its appetite. The population of Europe more than doubled and the European standard of living improved steadily.

Tobacco and syphilis also came from the Americas, but getting involved with either was generally a personal choice. Europe got tomato sauce for spaghetti and pizza, potatoes to go with meat, plus vanilla and chocolate for ice cream.

 
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