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September 12, 2011

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Maybe you'll have to change your life, to move or fight or even learn to grow your own food. But people did those things for thousands and thousands of years before you were born, and they were still happy.

Methos' grasp of the last 5000 years is a bit shakey, at least for Western civilization. Folk migrations from the east made war a near constant, so choices were limited to fighting or "moving", i.e. pushing one's western neighbor out of the way, using the weapons of the day. Eventually, the 'west' filled up, more or less, and horrific battles and wars were fought on the southern and eastern periphery, lasting until the end of the last century. Plus wars internal to what would become western Europe.

Then, more western migration and the New World became part of the "West". Ask the Native Americans how that "moving and learning to grow their own food" part worked out for them. They were outmatched and outnumbered on the fighting side, so that didn't go so well either. The only variable that would have made a practical difference for Native Americans would have been better fighting skills and equipment and unified resistance.

We don't have to imagine what happens when faced with an existential threat--history answers that threat for us.

The question really is whether the Al Qaeda of today is anything like an existential threat or whether it ever was. "No" is the answer to both questions. But, not dealing forthrightly with asymmetrical attacks, such as those launched well before and including 9-11, implies an unwillingness to deal with the reality of this often unhappy world, which is that war and lesser forms of conflict remain a constant, and will remain so for many years. As a nation we can't move because we've no place to go. Growing our own food doesn't get us much either. We pretty much do that and still bad things happen. That leaves us with Methos' last option.

The only variable that would have made a practical difference for Native Americans would have been better fighting skills and equipment and unified resistance.

And a smallpox vaccine.

I'm looking forward to your post about the anthrax attacks, because that's one of the things whose disappearance down the memory hole really irks me.

The way I remember it, in the long weeks of fall 2001, the thing that really frightened people in the US (as opposed to just making them sad and angry) was that the anthrax poisoner was out there somewhere. And, of course, the best evidence indicates that he may have been Bruce Ivins, a white American, a non-Muslim, a guy with no connection to al Qaeda apart from twisted motivation. And we went so long without finding him.

...and, judging from the 2011 NAS report, there are even questions about whether it was Ivins, and certainly about whether he acted alone. We may never even know, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of urgency about finding out.

And a smallpox vaccine.

Do you happen to have reliable stats on the extent to which imported disease was a factor in reducing the Native American population?

As Mann points out in 1491, European weapons technology was not really superior to that employed by Native Americans at the time. The vast majority of firearm owners of the time were incapable of hitting targets, and Native Americans very quickly discovered that and took advantage of it.

russell is, unsurprisingly, correct. The natives needed immunity to many crowd diseases if they were to have any hope of survival.

Given that you've botched the history so thoroughly, I don't think you're in any position to be lecturing anyone about their 'unwillingness to deal with the reality of this unhappy world'. The role of epidemiology in the conquest of the Americans is not exactly a secret from those with even a small interest in history....

Do you happen to have reliable stats on the extent to which imported disease was a factor in reducing the Native American population?

When the pilgrim's showed up at Plymouth, they were able to live in 'abandoned' native villages. Those villages were abandoned because 3 years earlier, a devastating plague brought in my French traders had exterminated 90% of the population of coastal MA. The small surviving remnant, worried about being taken over by larger native groups that hadn't been hit by the plague, decided to cut a deal with the Europeans. Were it not for the plague, the pilgrims would have faced the same fate as that of other groups of Europeans who tried to settle in or near the MA coast; they'd be accepted for a few weeks (maybe) and then summarily forced to leave.

Do you happen to have reliable stats on the extent to which imported disease was a factor in reducing the Native American population?

Oh, good gravy, smallpox ran like wildfire through Native American tribes. Some tribes saw 90% mortality, IIRC. Some tribes were effectively exterminated. Some discussion of this here, just as a starting point. I think Jared Diamond made a number of statements to this effect in Guns, Germs and Steel, but I couldn't tell you what his sources were.

Here's some transcripts from the PBS show on that book, whose existence I was not aware of until now. That whole aspect of contact between the Old World and the New World is tragic but fascinating.

This is not to be construed with agreeing with any claim that we used smallpox as germ warfare. Not that anyone here has made any such claim, within recent memory.

Do you happen to have reliable stats on the extent to which imported disease was a factor in reducing the Native American population?

Um, not at my fingertips, but I think the information is pretty widely available.

I'm actually surprised that it's controversial. My understanding, which could certainly be incorrect, is that depopulation through exposure to European diseases was a well-established fact.

Note that I'm not talking about deliberate infection of native Americans by Europeans. I'm just talking about native Americans dying in large numbers because of a lack of immunity to / lack of understanding of / lack of knowledge of how to treat European diseases.

If I'm not mistaken, this is not a controversial point. Nor was it meant to argue against your other points, it was a simple observation.

Although I will add that many native American groups were very, very skillful fighters. Very. Again, as I understand the history.

a devastating plague brought in my French traders had exterminated 90% of the population of coastal MA.

Aha Turb, so *you*(were behind it all! :)

SOOO appropriate on a thread named after a 5000-year-old guy.

The 'gift' of smallpox infested blankets seem to me germwarfary enough to me. Nothing new there, similar practices date back to the bronze age with the Hittites possibly the first to make a system out of it (using infected goats and sick women).

Here's a distillation. Wikipedia, so take with a grain, but:

After first contacts with Europeans and Africans, some believe that the death of 90–95% of the native population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases.[31] It is suspected that smallpox was the chief culprit and responsible for killing nearly all of the native inhabitants of the Americas. For more than 200 years, this disease affected all new world populations, mostly without intentional European transmission, from contact in the early 16th century to until possibly as late as the French and Indian Wars (1754–1767).

Some discussion of this here, just as a starting point. I think Jared Diamond made a number of statements to this effect in Guns, Germs and Steel, but I couldn't tell you what his sources were.

If you think this book of Diamond's is a valid source, which I do, that second word in the title kind of says it all, no?

OK, so on the topic of 9/11-related messages from our archetypal friends, I offer this. It's somewhat more lighthearted than Doc Science's offering, in sharing it I do not mean to trivialize the occasion or her story.

Around the time of 9/11 I was studying mbira, which is one of the African thumb pianos. A lot of percussionists study mbira at some point or other, and there's a surprisingly large and vigorous population of mbira players in the US.

In Zimbabwe, the mbira is traditionally a sacred instrument, used to facilitate contact with the spirits of your ancestors. I was sitting at home a little while after 9/11, and feeling more than a little freaked out about the attack and all of the things that followed.

So, I thought I would reach out to the ancestors to see if they could bring me some guidance.

I sat quietly and began to play, and tried to open myself to whatever message might come. I don't what I expected, exactly, or even if I expected anything at all. I just thought I'd listen and see what happened.

So, I got... something. My experience of it was sort of like how, when someone says something to you, their words form a thought in your mind. Except this was without anyone actually saying anything.

What the ancestors told me was this:

"You're hurting our ears! You need to practice more before you try to talk with us! Don't bother us until you can play better!"

True story.

And it was, after all, a piece of wisdom in its own way.

My impression is that there's huge disagreement about the number of people living in North America before Columbus, but very little disagreement that diseases from Europe wiped most of them out. Explorers landed in places that were clearly heavily settled, and by the time colonists came in larger numbers, almost all these people were gone. And the Europeans interpreted it as a sign from God that they were intended to take the land.

You know Squanto, the Indian who saved the Plymouth Pilgrims? He was a Patuxet from Massachusetts who got kidnapped for sale into slavery in Spain, and was rescued by some monks. After several years in London he managed to get back home and discovered that home didn't exist any more; everyone was dead. And then the Pilgrims showed up.

There's some evidence that there was a major disease that made the reverse trip, namely syphilis. But this is not settled. And as bad as syphilis was, it was nothing like what hit North America.

If you think this book of Diamond's is a valid source, which I do, that second word in the title kind of says it all, no?

The central question in the book, as I understand it, is why European civilization thrived and dominated to the extent that it did. Given the amount of time and space given in the book to sources of food available to Europe (as opposed to the Americas), I assume that "Germs" appears in the title instead of "Food" for reasons having to do with alliterative catch-phrasing, and not because they were a means of conquest. Food was not, either, a means of conquest.

You know Squanto, the Indian who saved the Plymouth Pilgrims?

What blows me away about this guy is how he introduced himself. He told the pilgrims his name was Tisquantum. That was not his name. In his language, that word meant rage. More specifically, the unending rage of the spirit who moves in all things. It would be like introducing yourself by saying 'Hi! I am the Wrath of God...'

Clearly, this guy had some things going on.

"You think you're the only people who've ever looked out at a pillar of smoke where a great city used to be? You think you're the only ones to have their world changed by something coming out of a clear blue sky?"

I think that this encapsulates what bugs me about the memorials for 911. After all, what we did to Iraq is a whole quantum jump worse and arent'they people too who suffer and mourn? This attitude of somehow being entilted to never suffer because we are Americans ( especially accompanied by the attitude that we get to inflict suffering without ever having it bother our consciences about it because we are Americans) really gets on my nerves.

I know someone who died in 911. She was in an office above where the plane hit. I don't know if she jumped or burned or what. I know her family grieved for her. I also know that there is no way in hell that her death justifies all the deaths we inflicted on Iraq and I wish we were the sort of nation that could spend as much of our attition examing our our actions as we spend licking our wounds.

One of the things that amazes me about the 911 attack is that some six thousad people spent over an hour going down crowded dark smoke filled stairs in a burning buildig and no one shoved anyone else or trampled anyone. In fact the opposite was the norm. People were kind, patient, brave. That day is really a momument to how good people can be to each other in a crisis, in spite of how frightened they were.

Then afterwards out of fear our nation went nuts. As a nation we need to talk about that.

That was not his name.

I've seen things say that was probably not his given name, but I think in order to claim conclusively that his name was not Tisquanto, you'd have to know what his name in fact was.

Which you don't, I think.

"Odysseus" as a chosen name wouldn't be much less aggrandizing, I think.

This reminds me of the conversation in The War of the Worlds between the narrator (presumably Wells himself) and the curate, in which he scolds the churchman for despairing just because of a little thing like London being destroyed -- did he think London was exempt, out of all the cities in history, from being destroyed...?

"Thor" is a pretty ambitious given name, too ;)

Also, Tisquantum died of smallpox himself two years after the Pilgrims landed.

(And, reading some more, I'm not sure "rescued" is precisely the right word for what the monks did to him. Bought and attempted to Christianize, more like.)

I remember well my emotions on 9/11. It was a first day of painting work at Keebler's plant offices near Chicago. First glimpse of something scary going on were invites to me by Keebler employees to go to conference room and watch the TV. Those inviting me and not my Mexican coworkers had REM like eye movement watching out for something. I started watching the events few minutes before second plane hit the south WTC tower. Just before that i started arguing that out of control plane would not enter inside the building and since there was no fog it was intentional. Gasps around the room reminded me of so many during the war in my country watching the artillery shells hitting the buildings in my city. And my parents house being right under the path of many artillery shells bombarding the city for over 4 years worrying about some of them missing intended target and hitting our house. Our subdivision had many Serbian people so they were avoiding to target us.
Since i relived similar situations few times i wasn't sharing the emotions with the rest of the room, but started worrying about US reaction toward recent immigrants, strangers. That didn't last long for the people started asking me more questions and treating me equal, like their own.
I actually did not see it as some world changing event. My thinking was exactly as Methos's words to Doc. It was already a part of my previous experiences.
Pretty soon someone came up with the name i never heard off Osama bin-Ladin. Then it was Pentagon and soon the White House came under the threat. I remember thinking that if the WH building was destroyed the US response would be like a crazy giant destroying everything in it's path and causing the WW3. I actually went home with a relief that the White House as a simbol of the US that everyone looks to, wasn't destroyed.

I assume that "Germs" appears in the title instead of "Food" for reasons having to do with alliterative catch-phrasing, and not because they were a means of conquest.

No, germs were central to the ability of Europeans to overtake land in the New World. Sometimes, as in the case of pox-ridden blankets deliberately given to natives under the guise of charity, germs were a "means of conquest." Mostly, though, they simply made conquest easier, without consious effort on the part of the invaders to use them.

There was a great deal of the book dedicated to a discussion of how domesticated animals in the Old World exposed the population to less virulent strains of infectious diseases that allowed people to gain immunity before exposures to worse forms that otherwise would have killed them. Pretty maids being a prime example: milk maids exposed specifically to cowpox becoming generally immune to smallpox, thereby not being scarred by the more destructive lesions of more virulent strains of smallpox.

On top of that, domestication of animals and greater reliance on organized agriculture allowed for greater urbanization, such that the population shared contagions more frequently and rapidly in dense population centers, forcing greater adaptive immunity over time.

So Europeans carried diseases that their bodies could resist, having been exposed to animals and each other to much greater degrees over generations than Native Americans, who could not resist those same diseases.

I'm surpised you could have missed all that, Slart, assuming you read the book.

That day is really a momument to how good people can be to each other in a crisis, in spite of how frightened they were.

Not that it has to a monument to one thing rather than another, or a monument to anything at all really, but this is mostly what I take away from the day.

Most of my own time watching the towers burn on the TV was spent in a hospital room in Ft Lauderdale, waiting for my old man to die.

As it turns out, he passed the night before his 25th wedding anniversary to my stepmother.

All in all, it was a crappy month.

But, among other notable things, 9/11 itself was full of simple, basic acts of human love, generosity, and courage. Nothing will ever defeat that.

The rest, I have to confess, I am not so much interested in.

Mostly, though, they simply made conquest easier, without consious effort on the part of the invaders to use them.

What part of that disagrees with not because they were a means of conquest?

My point was simply that "Germs" were not an active means of conquest, as the "Guns" and "Steel" part of the title were.

I'm surpised you could have missed all that, Slart, assuming you read the book.

I'm mildly surprised you came to that conclusion, HSH. I don't think I said anything contrary to what you said. Sure, there's more to the book than I said. I wasn't attempting to summarize.

Great post. I vaguely recall the Methos character... always liked him.

My initial reaction was, I imagine, similar to many other Americans: I was upset - both sad and really, really, really pissed off. For a few hours, I wanted blood.

But the anger faded by the 12th, and I was already trying to think it through and had started to worry about our (I assumed) inevitable overreaction. I wrote a naive letter to the White House, imploring Bush to be restrained & careful (go after the guys who did it, but don't go to war unless you absolutely must, that was the gist, since we were gearing up to go in to Afghanistan). Yeah, that worked out great.

I cringe at the 9/11 ceremonies and stuff, year after year. Ugh. For one, there is the "you think you're the only country to have suffered this sort of thing!?!?" element. For another, I worry about the long-term nurturing of grievance. I'm also put off by the (seemingly inevitable) jingoism of it all, and the use of 9/11 to push awful policy. Also, if I want to attend a Yankees game (yeah, I'm a Yankees fan) I will be subjected to the thoroughly excretable "God Bless America" during the 7th inning stretch. They play it to "honor America."

For those who lost friends and loved ones that day, I sympathize and intend no disrespect.

As far as I remember it, my first thought was "I hope this act was not committed by Palestinians" and the second "I hope Bush does not reach for the Red Button immediately". My colleagues (including some Lebanese) had the same thoughts.

My point was simply that "Germs" were not an active means of conquest, as the "Guns" and "Steel" part of the title were.

Usually not, but sometimes. Like Hartmut wrote, the blanket thing was pretty "germwarfary."

Either way, I suppose I did misconstrue what you wrote. I read you to be saying that "Germs" was some sort of substitute for "Food," as in that he really meant food, but used germs because it started with a "g." But I think I know what you meant now - food, for instance, was among the many factors, as were germs, but germs sounded better than any of the others not chosen, including food.

I'm not sure that your point is correct or relevant, but at least I think I know what it is.

Like Hartmut wrote, the blanket thing was pretty "germwarfary."

That's true. But there's no telling to what extent that attempt, or any other, was actually effective. It probably would have been more effective just to expose Native American populations to live smallpox victims. It's not as if Native Americans had in any sense quarantined themselves from Europeans.

Smallpox did a fairly decent job of killing native populations just from incidental contact, if my reading of things is in any way accurate.

Oof...

I remember being given updates by coworkers on what was happening on 9/11 after the initial attacks, only because I had a meeting scheduled that morning.

I came in after the first plane had struck, and a coworker had put the television on in one of the conference rooms after getting a call from his wife. At that point, I'm not sure if we knew it was a plane, or at least what kind of plane it was. Then we found out it was a large commercial jet. While we were speculating on it being accidental or terroristic, the second plane hit on live television as we were watching. That was a sickening and clarifying moment.

So my meeting started a bit late, since all the attendees watched TV for a while before eventually going to another room for our meeting. I remember someone popping in to say, "Another plane just hit the Pentagon." At that point, I thought the world might be ending or that WWIII was starting. Then it was, "One of the towers fell." I was thinking, "What do you mean it fell? How? Sideways, or what?" Then the other tower fell. Once I saw the video, it made sense, but I couldn't get my head around the towers falling just from hearing from someone that they did.

They sent everyone home for the day, so I went to the dentist's office where my wife worked, since it was their lunch hour. We all just watched CNN together through lunch, sort of dazed and freaked out at the same time.

I, too, remember the clear sky that day and the absence of planes. I also remember the first time I heard a plane after that and finding it startling. And I remember that November raking leaves on my front yard, hearing planes approaching, getting louder and louder and louder, far louder than anything I would hear approaching Philadelphia International over my house. As several fighter jets zoomed pretty low over me, I suddenly realized, to my great relief, that it was the day of the Army-Navy game and that they were headed to Veterans Stadium a few miles away to do their flyover before kickoff.

I was definitely a little jumpy for a while after that day.

Smallpox did a fairly decent job of killing native populations just from incidental contact, if my reading of things is in any way accurate.

I'd say that explains the overwhelming majority of native deaths from smallpox.

After first contacts with Europeans and Africans, some believe that the death of 90–95% of the native population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases.

This is why I asked if anyone had any reliable numbers. The various other links suggest smaller percentages, but then the fine print indicates a fair amount of qualification, i.e. uncertainty.

Europeans arrived in what would be the US in the early 17th century. 100 years later, a huge number of ethnically and linguistically distinct tribes were intact and doing quite well, from the Lakota in the Dakotas to a variety of disparate tribes in Texas and points east and west. You wouldn't have anything like that with a die-off of 90-95%. Further, there would be archeological evidence to support this kind of mass die off.

I am not discounting disease as a factor, but the evidence that it was the deciding factor in North America is thin. At least, based on what I've been able to find on my own and what I've been shown here.

What seems to have done the trick was impairing food supply (the buffalo kill-off) and superior weapons and organization. A specific example of the latter is the manner in which the Texas Rangers eventually overcame the Comanches, using multiple six shooters and adjusting tactics to ensure close combat on horseback that rendered bows relatively useless. Disease had nothing to do with it.

I don't really do 9/11 reminiscences. I don't feel compelled to rehash--year after year--what I was doing when the towers fell. To be frank, for years now I have made a point of ignoring blogs, the media, and indeed most of the rest of the world on its "anniversaries".

I get that this was a traumatic event--all the moreso, and legitimately so, for those who lost people they knew personally--but there is something... revolting and offensive about the degree to which this country wallows in it. And the people furthest from New York who have the least reasons to be personally hurt by the 9/11 attacks are typically the most obnoxious about this. It requires an appalling lack of perspective and sense of provincial entitlement: tens of thousands of Japanese died in the March tsunami, and many more perish in one natural disaster or another around the world year after year; hundreds of thousands are dead as a result of our invasion of Iraq. But to some people, it just shouldn't be able to happen here, to us. And when it finally did, they completely lost their sh1t.

I think I might feel differently if Republicans in general and the Bush administration in particular hadn't spent six years crassly exploiting this tragedy and doing their level best to stoke and sustain the very fear and paranoia that bin Laden desired to create. Instead of an opportunity to come together as a nation and empathize with people across the world who regularly deal with tragedies much worse than 9/11, they saw it as an opportunity to remake the Middle East at gunpoint by lying their way into a war of choice. Instead of a date to remember the fallen and resolve to do right by the survivors and heroes of that day, they turned it into a disgusting spectacle of death fetishism and jingoistic flag-waving while turning their backs on first responders and families.

To conservatives who might be reading: if you didn't do any of the things I described above, if you weren't one of the ones exploting 9/11 for politics and gleefully attacking liberals as "weak on terror", then I'm not talking about you. If the shoe does not fit, you are under no obligation to force yourself to wear it.

But if you did, then yes, I'm talking about you--and you are guilty of doing unforgivable damage to this country. If you're offended, you should be--not by my words, but by what you became, and by the crimes you helped enable. You turned what ought to have been a time for quiet memorial and reflection into something I can't read or hear about a decade later without being reminded of your smug betrayals of basic human decency.

Enough.

On a slightly lighter note, this post caught my eye because of the character--so to speak--of the anecdote Doctor Science chose to relate. It struck a chord with me because in 2001, I was still an active member of quite a few fandoms (slash and anime/manga, mostly), and wrote a lot of fanfic. One of the ways I processed 9/11 was by writing fanfic about certain characters playing out what I imagined their reactions would have been to the attacks. My partner at the time was into Highlander, and while I wasn't active in that fandom, I can still grok where the Methos love comes from.

While the discussion has centered around smallpox, it was a whole constellation of diseases rather than just one. Measles, rubella, whooping cough, even chickepox, diseases that at childhood are relatively benign, would have a huge impact on populations with no immunity. Recent work posits that the pigs the Spanish brought (and which then traveled much further) were responsible for the collapse of the Mississippi River native American populations, which resulted in the collapse of their civilizations. However, because these civilizations did not use stone, there is not the traditional archeological evidence. Pretty much the consensus in the field is that 90-95% die-off was sadly the case.

Pretty much the consensus in the field is that 90-95% die-off was sadly the case.

Stone isn't required to leave a footprint and if the population is large enough, and the loss relatively recent--as it is--the foot print should be correspondingly large. There were, in fact, existing, culturally distinct, tribes throughout the Mississippi Valley circa 1750-1800. If there had been a 90% die-off, virtually every tribe would have lost its cultural and linguistic identity, but that didn't happen.

How is this evidence of such a huge die-off identified and defended? Shouldn't there be numerous oral histories of such a die-off? One of Slarti's links hints at such a history, but in fact, it is very much equivocal. And even one such history in one area would not prove the point.

the loss relatively recent

But that is not the case. The diseases were probably transmitted on first contact (early 1500's) and raced ahead of any actual contact. (note that with the childhood diseases, airborne transmission is the norm) And the survivors of the tribes actually did lose their cultural identity, as any number of myths about Mississippi mound builders arose in the same tribes whose ancestors built the mounds. There is also the interesting fact that there are some very distant relationships between widely Native American languages (The Ritwan controversy is one of them, but there are several other proposed or proven long distance relationships) occur, which could point to a fragmenting of linguistic identity

One could ask the opposite question and wonder how could the North American continent, a place that could support a large population, be so empty when the settlers arrived? It's not like the continent was like Australia.

Europeans arrived in what would be the US in the early 17th century. 100 years later, a huge number of ethnically and linguistically distinct tribes were intact and doing quite well, from the Lakota in the Dakotas to a variety of disparate tribes in Texas and points east and west.

Look McK, this is not exactly my field of expertise, so take what I say with a grain of salt. But you're not making a strong case here.

Initial contact with Europeans in any kind of persistent way was about 100 years earlier than what you cite here.

The presence of intact, culturally distinct tribes in the Mississippi valley ca late 18th C proves what, exactly?

"Doing quite well" means what, exactly? Some of them were still alive?

1 in 3 people in Europe died in the space of a couple of years in the mid-14th C. They remained culturally distinct. Some places weren't hit that hard at all, some were annihilated. A generation or two later, many places were doing "quite well".

And "every tribe" had to experience 90% mortality for it to be significant? Wouldn't 50%, or 25%, or even 10% count as significant?

And what is the "deciding factor" business? The only comment anyone is making is that A LOT OF INDIANS DIED due to exposure to European diseases to which they had no immunity.

Yes, we also deprived them of food supplies, land, livelihood, water, and anything else we could manage so we could have their land.

Yes, we had the edge as far as technology goes.

What's your point? Is anyone saying those things aren't true?

It appears from the historical and archeological record that A LOT OF NATIVE AMERICANS DIED due to exposure to European illnesses to which they had no immunity, with which they had no history, and which they did not know how to treat or manage.

By "a lot", I mean enough that it was a factor in their eventual defeat by Europeans.

Except in your mind, apparently, this is not a controversial claim.

But you are correct, it was largely the Colt revolver and the insight that a Ranger on a horse had better odds than a Ranger on foot that finally swept the Commanches, specifically, from Texas, specifically.

That, and a couple of generations of dead Texans. Apparently, there was a hell of a learning curve involved.

Disease had nothing to do with it.

I think that's a rather strong statement that tends to ignore recorded history.

And what russell said:

Initial contact with Europeans in any kind of persistent way was about 100 years earlier than what you cite here.

is true, but the real story is worse. Incidental contact was enough to spark a conflagration of smallpox near-extinctions more than three centuries prior to your buffalo kill-off.

90% mortality is not a global figure, but rather a figure that may apply to some specific tribes, and not others. Wikipedia's source (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Paleopathology) in this matter cites mortality in some highly populated areas of the Peruvian Andes as being 90%.

The case of the Mandan tribes experiencing repeated near-extinctions from smallpox is fairly well-known. I believe it is referred to in Undaunted Courage, for instance.

90% mortality doesn't preclude subsequent repopulation, I should not have to add.

What happened to Cahokia, the largest city in the mid-continent?

From the Wikipedia:

Cahokia began to decline after 1300 CE. It was abandoned more than a century before Europeans arrived in North America, in the early 16th century,[23] and the area around it was largely uninhabited by indigenous tribes.[24] Scholars have proposed environmental factors, such as over-hunting and deforestation as explanations. The houses, stockade, and residential and industrial fires would have required the annual harvesting of thousands of logs. In addition, climate change could have aggravated effects of erosion due to deforestation, and adversely affected the cultivation of maize, on which the community had depended.

Hmm, "climate change" could have been involved, but was it warmer or colder?

"I don't really do 9/11 reminiscences. I don't feel compelled to rehash--year after year--what I was doing when the towers fell. To be frank, for years now I have made a point of ignoring blogs, the media, and indeed most of the rest of the world on its "anniversaries"."

I'd been wondering if there was less of it than I would have expected on the ten year anniversary, but then realized I've been deliberately avoiding any television show which started to mention it, changing channels or turning it off if it came up. I did look at some of the NYT's pieces in the Sunday magazine and enjoyed seeing Paul Berman and Michael Ignatieff get beaten up a bit for advocating for the Iraq War. So something good can come out of these retrospectives.

It's been about 40 years since I looked seriously into the question of the impact of European (and African!) diseases on the Americas - decades before anyone had heard of Jared Diamond - but I do recall two items of possible relevance to this discussion.

1) The massive depopulation of large parts of the Americas due primarily to disease is not disputed by any serious demographer. You may think you're coming up with new questions to be put to a new theory, McT, but you're not. These questions were raised, and answered, half a century ago, and the answering has been refined ever since. (In that respect it's a little like the evolving study of evolution.) The debates within the field are mostly over orders of magnitude - if "90%" death rates (2 of 20 survive) reflect a crude average over a wide area, but some general areas it's more like 95% (1 of 20) and some it's merely 80% (4 of 20), with local variation ranging from under 50% to complete annihilation, there can be significant variance in how the survivors are able to reproduce and replicate their old societies - and the precise cocktail of diseases that are likely to have impacted a given population. As someone noted above, measles and chickenpox were about as lethal as smallpox - probably more so in some cases, because more Europeans had them.

2) The "smallpox blanket" story is widely believed, but seems to have been extremely rare in practice. As I recall, there was only one firmly documented case (involving Lord Jeffrey Amherst? not sure on that), and all the rest seems to have been either speculation ("Hey, we could give them contaminated blankets!") or mythologizing. Maybe about the same as the use of sarin or anthrax in our times - acts of a handful of sociopaths (?) rather than the systematic policy implied by "germ warfare"?

Crap, two posts of mine seem to have disappeared into the spam filter. Too many links. Oops.

One link: detailed figures from pages 235 (and a bit on 232) onwards for some time, on smallpox in America in the 1500s and later.

More history of smallpox in America.

An early set of events:

[...] In November 1519 Hernando Cortes and his followers reached the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. At about the same time smallpox was introduced onto the mainland of the New World by an African slave named Francisico de Baguia. In the ensuing months smallpox spread throughout the Aztec empire, as Montezuma feted the Spaniards. By the summer of 1520, smallpox had reached the edge of Mexico's inland plateau. In September it reached the towns around the lakes in the Valley of Mexico. Then in October, Montezuma was killed by his own people, and the Aztecs, under the leadership of Montezuma's aggressive brother Cuitlahuac drove the Spaniards out of the city. In the wake of Cortes' retreat, smallpox entered the Aztec capital.

The Aztecs called it hueyzahuatl, "the great leprosy," because its victims were so covered with pustules that they looked like lepers. In its spread through the countryside the disease exerted a devastating impact on the populace who had no resistance to it whatsoever.

Tribute lists indicate the population of the Aztec Empire was 30 million in 1518. By 1568, Spanish officials estimated only 3 million remained. By 1620 the number had shrunk further to 1.6 million. No one knows how many truly died from smallpox and the other diseases that followed in its wake. The native Americans simply called it the "Great Dying."

Whatever the actual number of the dead smallpox was a catastrophe and of a scale far exceeding its earlier rampages on Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba. A Spanish friar, Fray Toribio Motolinia described the epidemic and its effect in graphic terms: " ...when the smallpox began to attack the Indians it became so great a pestilence among them throughout the land that in most provinces more than half the population died. For as the Indians did not know the remedy for the disease... they died in heaps, like bedbugs."

In Tenochitlan the disease raged for sixty days, killing by the cartload. One of its first victims was the new Emperor Cuitlahuac who had ruled Mexico for a total of four months. Two months later Cortes returned and took the great city amidst a raging smallpox epidemic that left so many dead he was forced to abandon his conquest for sixty days until the natural decomposition of the enormous numbers of dead had rendered the city fit to live in again.

The role of smallpox in the New World was far from over. From Mexico the disease spread south and north cutting a swath of destruction before it. It reached modern day Peru and took the life of the great Inca leader Huayna Chupauc, who had doubled the size of the Empire. The designated heir, Ninan Cuyoche, was dead by the time word of Huayna Chupuac's demise was brought to the Inca capital at Tumipampa. Huayna Chupuac's general Minacnacatamayta and several other officers also died. A war of succession broke out in the Inca Empire when Huascar was appointed Inca, then challenged by his illegitimate brother Atahualpa. A disastrous civil war broke out, lasting five years. Smallpox moved with the army and the civilians to spread thoughout he empire and materially aid the Spanish conquest.

The Inca Empire suffered a similar mortality as incomprehensible in its completeness as suffered by the Aztecs. Cieza de Leon, a Spanish chronicler wrote with simple eloquence of the sudden, awful emptiness in the land. "No testimony remains that the country had once been populated other than the great cemeteries... They asked Benalcazar how many Indians he found between Quito and Cartago, and they desired to know from me how many remain. Well, there are none. In a town that had a population of 10,000, there was not one person left."

Visitations of the disease in North America were no less devastating. In 1617-1619 smallpox wiped out nine-tenths of the Indian population along the Massachusetts coast. The epidemic fortuitously cleared a place for the first Pilgrims. Seven years earlier, the Narragansetts alone were said to be able to muster 3000 warriors, whereas Miles Standish and his companions found only a few straggling inhabitants, innumerable burial places, empty wigwams and some skeletons when they arrived at Plymouth in 1620. Surveying the aftermath Standish was frank in his appraisal "Smallpox was the blessing in disguise that gave (us) an opportunity to found the State."

No, this is not controversial.

Some businesses on my street in Seattle's University District closed, but I thought it was important to open my bookstore, because people would need a refuge. People were quiet, in shock, not angry.

About a week later, some Pakistani businessmen came in and wanted to talk to me about buying my business. I was courteous, but said no. The manager of the theater next door was present and remarked on how polite I'd been to them, eventually connecting them to 9/11. I pointed out that the people who did that died that day.

In the subsequent days and years, the Koran became the hot book for a used bookstore to have, as people tried to understand what had happened. I was tremendously encouraged that this was the response for so many people.

"She will strike and sink and split. Do you think the laws of God will be suspended in favour of England because you were born in it?"

Captain Shotover, in Shaw's Heartbreak House.

Hmm, "climate change" could have been involved, but was it warmer or colder?

I blame Al Gore's great-great-great-great-great-great grandpa.

dr ngo
I would not claim that the smallpox blanket gifts were a systematic approach to the 'native problem'. I think I heard of two instances where it happened. I just quoted it as an exmaple that the knowledge of the fatal effects of introducing disease carriers existed and that there were people willing to use it. The conquest of the Americas is a rather nauseating story in general (and so is the way it is still glorified/justified by many today).
The idea to 'apply' it with genocidal intent has come up repeatedly, e.g. in Jack London's 'The Unparalleled Invasion'(1910). And there are still dreams of 'racist bacteria' that could selectively kill blacks or semites. Sometimes those dreams got government backing (South Africa definitely, the US allegedly).

About 9/11/2001, most of my experience of it was second-, third- or fourth-hand so I've generally kept quiet and let other people talk. But there is one image from that time that keeps coming back to me.

On the 11th, I'd driven to work, but on the 12th I took the commuter rail. Coming home, I remember being a little reassured by my glimpse of the skyscrapers of Back Bay while walking down the hill to the station, and marveling at the contrail-free sky. But when I was on the train, there was a guy sitting in front of me who looked South Asian or Middle Eastern--certainly, a potential target for somebody who wasn't into making fine distinctions--and he was clearly terrified to be there. There was a look of barely suppressed panic on his face, and he was muttering something under his breath the whole time, possibly praying.

I've thought about him a lot in the years since that day.

You may think you're coming up with new questions to be put to a new theory, McT, but you're not. These questions were raised, and answered, half a century ago, and the answering has been refined ever since. (In that respect it's a little like the evolving study of evolution.)

Who raised and answered these questions? Widespread de-population implies levels of social incoherence that are only to be guessed at since no one has observed and meaningfully chronicled entire, multiple societies being reduced to one-in-ten or one-in-twenty. No one is saying disease didn't play a role, but anecdotal incidents of localized horror do not prove the main point. The premise is the European diseases continued to wreak havoc into the 19th century. Assuming this is the case, tell me how every Native American society could be reduced by 90-95% between 1500 and "your date goes here", yet then while still being reduced, manage to universally reconstitute themselves into linguistically and culturally distinct entities?

Seems like a bit of a stretch to me and simply asserting that the fact is so well established that it is beyond argument doesn't get there either. The fact of viable, intact tribes across the continent in the 18th century directly contradicts the notion that those same tribes were virtually wiped out, and were still in the process of being wiped out, beginning 200 years earlier.

Who raised and answered these questions?

McK, there is an extensive literature on the topic. No, I don't have the time or expertise to cite it for you chapter and verse. Suffice it to say that if it's something you are really interested in checking out, it's available.

Maybe dr ngo or someone whose area of professional expertise this actually is can point you in a good direction.

But arguing that there were intact tribes across the continent in the 18th Century is not a really convincing counter argument. The degree, date, and nature of contact with Europeans varies widely. The social organization of the tribes themselves is a factor - epidemic diseases would be likely to have a larger impact on denser populations.

You're arguing that a pattern that occurred across a continent, over the course of a couple of hundred years, across widely differing social and ethnic groups, with widely differing social organizations, can't have happened because at a particular 25 or 50 year window, everybody wasn't completely annihilated.

It's not a strong argument.

As noted upthread, this is not my field, and frankly I don't really have a dog in this fight anyway. But the consensus among folks who spend their lives looking at stuff like this is that the impact of European diseases on native American populations was severe.

As I understand the little bit of the literature I've read, anyway.

Perhaps you have hit upon some new and heretofore unthought of perspectives. In which case, there is a graduate study grant out there with your name on it, should you choose to pursue it.

But the points you are raising to object to this are just not that convincing. To me, anyway.

It would be like saying, in 1600 there was still viable settled communities in Europe, so the black plague could not have happened.

It doesn't make sense.

russell to McTx: What's your point?

I don't know what McTx's specific point is, but in conversations I've had with people who take issue with the role of disease, mostly in response to Diamond's book, there seems to be some sort of need to attribute the European's conquest of North America as solely a result of their obvious cultural/technological (and in some cases religious) superiority over Native Americans, which seems to give such people some sort of solace about the result for some reason.

To the extent that smallpox, measles, rubella, etc. played a very significant, if not decisive (in a "but for" kind of way), role in that conquest, it takes away from the "just" European "victory."

As if, somehow, it's better that Europeans essentially eradicated Native Americans on purpose, rather than having a large part of the work done for them by virulent diseases.

McKTx:

The problem with "proof" is that it is assembled from multiple, disparate sources. If you don't believe e.g. Jared Diamond's accounts, then you're going to have to go back to more formal historical accounts, which are in turn assembled from a multitude of letters, etc. I have limited experience with that sort of thing, but if you seek primary sources, you're going to have to do your own homework.

But accounts of e.g. the near-extinction of the Mandans can be found in many, many places (here, for instance). The Internet is rife with them. If you don't believe those, you're going to have to actually visit some printed-paper libraries, and do your own research. If you don't believe those histories, you're going to have to hit up some primary sources, which should put you well on your way to becoming a historian.

In the Smithsonian article I linked to is this:

In just seven months since the first death, the Mandan had been reduced from 1,600 people “to thirty-one persons,” he wrote to Clark in February 1838. (Scholars now believe that there were 100 to 200 actual survivors.) Half of the Hidatsa had died, as had half of the Arikara. “The great band of [Assiniboine], say ten thousand strong, and the Crees numbering about three thousand have been almost annihilated. . . . The disease had reached the Blackfeet of the Rocky Mountains. . . . All the Indians on the Columbia River as far as the Pacific Ocean will share the fate of those before alluded to.” In short, Pilcher told Clark, the Great Plains were being “literally depopulated and converted into one great grave yard.”

So: where'd they get this? Obviously from the letter from Joshua Pilcher to William Clark. Where'd they get subsequent information that revises Pilcher's estimate upward?

Let us know what you find, ok?

yet then while still being reduced, manage to universally reconstitute themselves into linguistically and culturally distinct entities?

Consider the nomadic Plains tribes: their whole culture revolved around the ability to ride horses, which couldn't possibly have happened before Europeans arrived since there were no horses in North America then. These things can happen quickly.

...I admit, that's just an example of rapid cultural change; these groups already existed before they had horses.

I'm obviously no historian and even less of an anthropologist, but it seems to me that even if you reduce a native American civilization by e.g. 90%, some of the culture is retained, some is lost, and some word-of-mouth history is lost forever. To the extent that cultures continue to be maintained as separate entities (this was apparently not true of the Mandans, after the plague that I referenced in my last comment; they merged with another tribe), they will continue to have separate, but certainly irrevocably altered and diminished, cultures.

Other tribes not hit as hard (for whatever reason) might survive in greater strength and cohesion, but to the extent that those tribes remain separate entities from the ones nearly exterminated, those cultures will continue on their separate paths.

Seems commonsense to me. I may be completely wrong, though.

It's good to have some input from a trained historian, even if this isn't his particular area. So: my thanks, dr ngo!

Imagine if some modern, but new, pandemic struck worldwide, killing approximately 90% of the world's population, in some more or less uniform way.

Would McKTx expect that the resultant nations would then merge to form a smooth, homogeneous civilization? Or would we continue to have French-speaking regions, Italian-speaking regions, and several nations of English-speaking peoples who have to strain to understand each other's dialects?

Plus over a hundred other continuing, individual cultures?

What happened to the Incans? The Aztecs? Ever wonder? Wouldn't it be keen to go read and find out?

I am no expert on the topic, but I remember reading a book about the Pilgrims & their early interactions w/local tribes that suggested that the local tribes were basically shell-shocked by the disease impact... they thought the white man had magical powers (not just b/c of guns), or perhaps they thought they were being punished by the gods/spirits (this would seem to me to be a normal human reaction). Meanwhile, the Pilgrims were (correctly) very worried about how easily they could be wiped out. Then came a very nasty little war.

Aaaaaanyway, whether the casualties were 90% or 75% or 50%... disease clearly had a massive impact and who knows how things would've gone w/o that.

You could look at the history of European colonization in Africa and India for a possible answer. There, the Euros didn't have the disease edge - only technological (and political, I think) edges. The result was still domination, for a while at least, but in the end the natives are still there, ruling their own countries. Just a thought.

And not only that, the whites figured it was God's hand too. Nobody knew thing one about microbiology or evolution, so it was a reasonable enough conclusion.

Following up on "Rob in CT" - Yes, the impact of imperialism was generally different on the other side of the Atlantic/Pacific. In broad terms, there was an "Old World" germ pool, and a "New World" one, with the former much larger and more lethal. European conquests throughout the "Old World" (Asia and Africa) did not, in general, have anything like the kind of devastating demographic consequences that they did in the New World, presumably because most of the inhabitants of newly-conquered territories had already been exposed, however incidentally and indirectly, to the Old World diseases. Australia seems to have fallen off the edge, and a new book on the Philippines suggests that parts of it were more "marginal," in terms of this pool, than we had previously recognized.

One of the implications - and ironies - of this is that it was often Europeans in their new outposts in Africa and Asia who were the most at risk, because they were exposed to unfamiliar conditions and diseases that bothered the locals less. The mortality rates for European soldiers in some ports on the African and Indonesian coasts approximated 50% a year at times, which meant that a continual supply of new recruits was necessary just to sustain previous triumphs. "God gave the Portuguese," they used to say, "only a little country to be born in, but the whole world in which to die."

The New World, by contrast, had very few diseases "new" to the Old World. The most notable of these is supposed to have been syphilis, but (1) it's not all that lethal (as opposed to just nasty) and (2) it may not have come from the New World at all, but have been a mutation of an older, less nasty, disease, like yaws (?!). The original attribution to the New World was heavily based on chronological coincidence, i.e., descriptions of what seems almost surely syphilis (in contrast to diseases that might have been something like it) appear almost immediately after the first voyages return from the West "Indies."

McT Who raised and answered these questions?

Geez, I dunno. Probably criminal lawyers noodling around on the internet in their spare time. They seem to have all the questions, and most of the answers.

Sheesh.

But more seriously: The premise is [that?] the European diseases

    continued
to wreak havoc into the 19th century.

Whose premise? Certainly not mine, nor that of anyone in this thread, as far as I can tell, nor of any of the historians and historical demographers on whom our views rely. The great die-off in the Americas occurred predominantly from the very late 15th century into the 17th century, by which time most populations were starting to recover. Nineteenth-century Amerindians suffered all manner of illnesses and ignominies, but these were not primarily attributable to a total lack of exposure to "Old World" germs, as they might have been a few centuries earlier.

If that is your point, McT, then no one is arguing with you.

If you are still arguing that no earlier devastation on the scale under discussion is possible, because you, and you alone, with no training in the relevant disciplines (so far as I can tell) nor extensive reading in the relevant sources, have decided it just doesn't make sense . . .

well, there's not much we can do.

It just came to my mind that there were earlier contacts between Europeans and native Americans. But then America was beyond the incubation range. Diseases reached Iceland* (repeatedly devastated by the plague and with endemic leprosy) but were unable to jump to Greenland and consequently America because the journey took too long. Diseases that could have managed it seem not to have played a role in Northern Europe at the time. When those showed up there were no contacts anymore and the germs had to travel the Southern route.
One may wonder, was America spared the great dying during the Viking age or was it a lost chance at catching up?

*from Britain when faster ships than the longboats came into use. The distance to Norway was again to large.

My short-form synthesis of previous comments in reply to McKinney:

Unless one is an expert on the state of Native American cultures circa 1500, one cannot judge the relative distinctness or intactness of same a few hundred years later.

(Or, how do you know how much something has changed if you don't know what it was like before?)

Weren't there some serious epidemics in the Indian population in the American West in the 1830's or 40's? Admittedly my only basis for thinking that was the Guthrie novel "The Big Sky", but my impression is that it's supposed to be a fairly accurate historical novel.

"As if, somehow, it's better that Europeans essentially eradicated Native Americans on purpose, rather than having a large part of the work done for them by virulent diseases."

When I've encountered this topic people sometimes use the pandemics to argue that the Europeans should not be blamed for genocide, because disease caused the vast majority of the deaths and this was largely unintentional (aside from the extremely rare case or two that dr. ngo mentioned above). The statistical part of the argument is correct. It doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of brutality, including some of what anyone would call genocide, later on.

yaws

Which brings to mind a Spider-Robinson-ism that goes something like:

A: I'm suffering from a bad case of yaws.
B: What's yaws?
A: I'll have a beer, thanks!

Weren't there some serious epidemics in the Indian population in the American West in the 1830's or 40's?

The last Mandan smallpox outbreak occurred about then, along with a whole lot of other mass deaths in other tribes. I think the Smithsonian article I linked to upthread talks a bit about a vaccination campaign that took place shortly afterward, and how unexpectedly cooperative (even eager) the various native tribes were in said campaign.

Small wonder, I'd think, considering that (according to that same article) whole families suicided to be free of the agony. Not a pleasant affliction, from some accounts.

It doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of brutality, including some of what anyone would call genocide, later on.

Or even earlier on. Conquistadores weren't exactly gentle to the native populace.

Note the mention of the contribution of smallpox to the demise of both Incan and Aztec empires.

What Jefferson had in store for natives in the soon-to-be-United States was less brutal and sudden, but certainly not nice.

Methos and me, and irony...

hmmm...

The way the Museum of the American Indian's exhibit puts it is something like: "The dieoff that happened on initial European contact was an unintended tragedy, perhaps unavoidable regardless of goodwill. What happened afterward was not."

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