The Great Dying of the Americas

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Podcast Transcript

When Europeans arrived in the New World in 1492, it was the beginning of a series of events that ws the biggest change in humanity since the discovery of agriculture.

The magnitude of those changes wasn’t even known at the time, or even for several centuries after the fact. It has only been recently that researchers have discovered the magnitude of what happened.

Learn more about The Great Dying of the Americas on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

While I’ve read many articles about this subject, researching it was probably much more difficult than it should have been. Despite it being, as we’ll see, one of the most significant events in human history, it really doesn’t have a name. 

Other tragedies such as the Holocaust and the Holodomor have names given to them that we can refer to, but not this. 

I’ve gone with The Great Dying just because it has been used by several sources, even though it isn’t a universal way to refer to it. 

Before I get into what happened and why, we first have to establish what was happening in the Americas in 1491, before the Europeans arrived. 

For the most part, the Old World, consisting of Europe, Asia, and Africa, was separated from the new world of North and South America. I’ll be using new world and western hemisphere synonymously, even though they aren’t perfectly the same things.

The biggest wave of humans arrived in the Americas about 20,000 years ago, based on the best current estimates, but there was probably a steady flow of people over the Bering Land Bridge up until the end of the ice age. 

That means for the last 11,000 years, up until about 500 years ago, the people of the western hemisphere and eastern hemisphere had no contact and took very different paths of social and technical development. 

For the purposes of this episode, this resulted in a host of diseases that arose in the old world, often arising from the domestication of animals. 

These diseases include bubonic plague, chickenpox,, measles, cholera, typhus, malaria, yellow fever, scarlet fever, influenza, diphtheria, whooping cough, dengue fever, anthrax, botulism, and of course smallpox…..just to name only the big ones. 

That means, and I am making very broad generalizations here, the people in the old world had as a group much greater exposure and immunity to these diseases. They certainly weren’t immune and these illnesses still caused a great deal of death, but there was collectively much more immunity built up.

The other relevant thing about the old world was its population. 

The population of the Americans before European contact has been very difficult to ascertain, and academic estimates have been all over the place. There is literally more than an order of magnitude difference between the highest and lowest estimates. 

Estimating the population of the Americas is very difficult to do. You had large, centralized civilizations like the Aztecs, but at the same time, you had nomadic people living in the north, and also tribes living deep in the Amazon. 

Initial estimates of the population of the New World were very low. These estimates were due to several things. 

The first was which was the inability of Europeans to believe that the native people in the Americans could have supported a large population. They also had little knowledge of how people really lived, and a low estimate served as a justification for what they did.

Some of the first, very non-scientific estimates put the entire population of the western hemisphere at around 1 million people. 

Later researchers took a more systematic attempt at estimating populations and had higher estimates.

As more archeology discoveres were made, a clearler picture developed of how pre-columbian Americans lived. Many assumptions regarding how densely populated regions were, changed. 

One area in particular where human settlements were found that were totally unexpected was the Amazon. In just the last few years, enormous circular enclosures were found in the southern part of the Amazon rainforest and river basin.

These enclosures were anywhere from 100 to 1,000 feet in diameter and usually were located on small hilltops. There were thousands of these enclosures scattered over a 6.7 million square kilometer area of rainforest.

It wasn’t just the Amazon. More information has been found regarding how people lived everywhere from the Great Plains to Patagonia. They often were much more sophisticated in how they managed the land they lived in than anyone ever though.

One of the techniques that was used was controlled used of fire. In the rainforest, regular controlled burns would clear land for agriculture. In the plains or in forests, this would allow for new growth which was preferred food for game animals. 

The controlled burns created better hunting grounds. The image of nomadic hunters constantly moving in search of game isn’t totally true. They actually controlled the landscape to improve grazing land.

The cumulative result of all of these discoverities was a substantial increase in the estimates of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas. 

Population estimates are still just that, estimates. There is still a substantial range of estimates which go from 8 million to 112 million. 

However, the consensus estimate now is that there were probably about 55 to 60 million people in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans. 

Some of the journal entries from the very first European explorers provide corrobation for higher population numbers. Giovanni da Verrazzano was one of the first Europeans to explore the Eastern Seabord of North American in the very early 16th century. 

He reported seeing many settlements all along the coast and inland rivers with frequent fires and smoke emanating from the many villages. 

However, this was a century before the first English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. 

When the settlers showed up 100 years later, they found a very different environment. There weren’t villages located within sight of each other all along the coast. 

There are estimates that 10% of the landmass in the Americas was used for agriculture, composed to approximately 20% in China and Europe.

What happened? What changed? 

What happened from the landing of Columbus to about the year 1600 was probably the largest loss of life in human history. 

All of those diseases which had spread in the old world were unleashed on the new world. 

None of the 50 to 60 million people who inhabited the Amerias had any immunity to any of these diseases. 

They weren’t just hit with a disease. This wasn’t just a pandemic. They were hit by pretty much all the diseases. 

This wasn’t a case where there was a patient zero that began the spread of the diseases. Many of these communities were rather isolated from one another, so it wasn’t like a modern pandemic. 

This was a constant spread throughout the 16th century as Europeans spread throughout North and South America. 

To be certain, there were many horrible things which contributed to the deaths during the period. The Spanish enslaved many natives. There were wars, massacres, and other atrocities which occured during this time. 

I don’t want to downplay the significance of those events, and many of them will be worthy of future dedicated episodes, but they all paled in comparison to the deaths from disease. 

Many, if not most, of the victims from disease never saw a European or even knew that they existed. 

How many people died? Estimates are that by the year 1600, the native population in the Americans had decreased by 90%. The total number of deaths over this period may have been as high as 50 to 100 million people. 

This compromised a full 10% of the population on Earth. 

Before the arrival of Cortez, Mexico had a population of 20 to 30 million people. The most densely populated part of the New World. Within fifty years of his arrival, the population of Mexico was down to one to three million people. 

To put this into perspective, even during the Black Death, mortality rates were only 30 to 50%.

The drop in population was so great that it is believed to have affected the climate. The depopulating of the Americans led to increased forest growth, which resulted in a decrease in CO2, and probably contributed to the Little Ice Age which began in the 16th century. 

The diseases had a cascading effect. Fewer people meant fewer people to work fields, grow crops, and hunt game. This resulted in famines that went along with the plagues.

While many of the things inflicted on native populations by Europeans were intentional, including cases of purposely speading smallpox, most of the  disease was spread inadvertently. No one in the 16th century had a scientific understanding of germs and disease.

The Europeans who arrived certainly saw disease wipe out villages and cities, however, not one really put together what was happening at a global level. 

Many Europeans who showed up in the 17th and 18th centuries found a land that had already been depopulated. They assumed that what they had come across was the way it had always been. 

The enormous heards of bison that were found in North America probably were not the norm. The number of bison probably increased dramatically after the native populations died out. 

Even while many of the 16th century numbers are in doubt, they are consistent with the 19th century numbers for tribes which made contact with Europeans later on. 

The Haida people of the Pacific Northwest were one of the last North American tribes to make contact with Europeans, and they also lost 90% of their population, again with smallpox being the biggest killer.

Sadly, to a certain extent, much of this was unavoidable. Because of the way the two hemispheres developed, whenever they met, whatever the circumstances, it was probably going to result in a massive pandemic just because the new world hadn’t built up any of the disease immunities of the old world. 

If the Chinese Admiral Zheng He and his treasure fleet had arrived in the Americans first, things may have unfolded differently, but the end results would probably have been similar. 

It is only now, 500 years after it took place, that we are really starting to understand just how massive the Great Dying of the Americas actually was. 

Since the dawn of humanity there hasn’t been a war, plague or famine that we know of which has been responsible for the loss of more lives. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Aosc2 over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write, 

Great, bite-sized episodes

Hey, Gary! Discovered this podcast recently and I love it. I learn a lot about so many different topics in a short amount of time. Keep up the good work!

Thanks, Aosc! I’m happy to personally welcome you to the show. As you have just recently discovered it, you have a lot of back episodes to listen to before you the completion club.  

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.