WASHINGTON – The sharp decrease in the indigenous population of the Americas following the European conquest had enormous impact not only on culture and society but also on global climate, according to a Harvard University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While few dispute that native populations were decimated by disease and conflict as a result of the conquest, the pace and timing of those developments remain subject to debate.
Many scholars claim that disease struck the native population shortly after their first contact with Europeans. Others argue that the process was far more gradual.
The new study, led by Harvard anthropologist Matt Liebmann, indicates that in what is now northern New Mexico, Old World diseases did not spread until nearly a century after the first European contact with Native Americans.
“In the Southwest, first contact between native people and Europeans occurred in 1539,” Liebmann said in a statement. “We found that disease didn’t really start to take effect until after 1620.”
The blow, when it came, was devastating. In just 60 years, native populations in the 18 villages examined plunged from approximately 6,500 to fewer than 900.
“But we then see a very rapid depopulation from 1620 to 1680. (The death rate) was staggeringly high – about 87 percent of the Native population died in that short period,” Liebmann said.
“Think about what that would mean if you have a room full of people and nine out of 10 die,” he continued. “Think of what that means for their social structure, if they’re losing the people who know the traditional medicine, their social and religious leaders, think of the huge impact it would have on their culture and history.”
The study indicates that the impact of population loss went beyond the social and cultural realms to leave a mark on global climate and the atmosphere.
“Forest fires also take off during this period,” Liebmann said. “When people are living in these villages, they need timber for their roofs, and for heating and cooking. In addition, they’re clearing the land for farming, so trees weren’t growing there when these archaeological sites were inhabited.”
“But as people died off, the forests started re-growing and we start to see more forest fires,” he said.
Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fell dramatically in 1610.
“One of the theories suggests that because Native Americans were being removed from the landscape on a massive scale, especially in the Amazon, they were no longer burning the forest for agriculture, and as the forest re-grew it sequestered carbon,” Liebmann said.
“The argument hinges on the notion that the depopulation of the Americas was so extreme that it left its mark on the atmosphere and climate at global scales,” he said.