Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Native American Population Bottleneck

Metacom- Sachem of the Wampanoag Confederation
I have been thinking some about our Native American populations in New England since writing the article on Anawan Rock. In reading Church’s The Entertaining History of King Philip's War, I was fascinated at how diverse the native population of New England was during that time. It made me really wonder how diverse the pre-Columbian native groups must have been. Of course these groups did not leave us with written records, so all we have had are guesses at the population of the North East before the arrival of Europeans.

National Geographic just published an article discussing a DNA study on ancient and modern Native American groups. The study found that native populations might have shrunk by about half after European contact. The article states:
“The finding supports historical accounts that Europeans triggered a wave of disease, warfare, and enslavement in the New World that had devastating effects for indigenous populations across the Americas.”
The article goes on to say that Native American population reached an all time high roughly 5,000 years ago and reached its low point around 500 years ago. Most likely, the beginning of the population decline was triggered by European diseases like small pox. Although Europeans waged war against and enslaved native groups from almost the instant they got on shore, diseases could go places they could not. Diseases killed far more people than Europeans did themselves.

Most historians would not argue that small pox outbreaks among native groups like the Aztecs in Mexico allowed the Spaniards to conquer those areas. Yes, the Europeans had guns and horses, but the Aztecs and groups like them were fully capable of fighting back. Plus they outnumbered the Spaniards severely.

In New England outbreaks of plague and small pox killed off entire villages of natives even before 1620. When the Puritans arrived in Plymouth, after visiting Cape Cod, they believed they had been divinely provided with an empty native village ripe for their own settlement. They were unknowingly settling in the village of Patuxet, which had almost completely been whipped out before they Puritans arrived. One of the only survivors was Tisquantum, who the Europeans called Squanto. If you live in New England, there is probably a road named after him near you.

The author also says that researchers admit the margin of error is quite high and that the population bottleneck may have happened more recently than 500 years ago. If this is the case, it still makes sense. The King Philip’s War of 1675 was only one of the first major efforts to eradicate a native population. From that point on the US (including New Englanders sadly) pushed their way across the country displacing, destroying, or assimilating entire populations along the way. They would of course, spread disease as they went, which would precede them. Therefore, a population bottleneck is not surprising, at least historically. In fact, it should be expected.

It’s interesting to note that the researchers also concluded that native populations rebounded after many developed resistances to Europeans diseases. In addition, it’s not believed that this bottleneck seriously harmed the genetic diversity of native groups.

I don’t know if the DNA analysis included native groups from New England. However, I am certain the information definitely applies to them and their interaction with European settlers. Studies like this often remind me, even when I am doing something like walking my dogs, we are walking in the footsteps of people (and dogs) who lived here thousands of years before me or any Yankee.

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