Did you ever wonder what the population of North and South America was before Columbus made his big “discovery”? As Charles C. Mann shows in his book “1491,” there is a wide diversion of opinions. The “Low Counters” estimate about 10 million while the “High Counters” guess it is more like 100 million. Why the high level of uncertainty? Seems native Americans – Aztecs, Mayans, Incas, Iroquois, Cherokees et alia – saw no need for taking censuses. Only when the Spanish arrived did the idea of taking body counts of the living become accepted.
And while the Spaniards certainly knew how to count, what they were counting were those who remained after smallpox, measles, influenza and other pandemics had decimated the various populations they were estimating. The idea that the western hemisphere was an empty continent waiting to be occupied by needy Europeans has been laid to rest along with the millions of native Americans who were killed off in short order by European diseases, particularly smallpox. In 1542 Bartolome de Las Casas, Spanish historian, Dominican friar, and American explorer, said that the Americas were so thick with people “that it looked as if God has placed all of or the greater part of the entire human race in these countries.” (Mann)
Zinnser, in his delightful book, “Rats, Lice and History,” comments on the relative unimportance of generals as compared with microbes. The outcome of more campaigns was determined by epidemic pathogens than by the brilliance of generals. How else could a piddly number of conquistadors and colonists have “opened” up the Americas for settlement and exploitation?
Although the science is disputed, it is not unreasonable to believe that the native Americans attempted to upstage the European invaders – both human and microbial – and their “Small Pox” by exporting back to Europe the “Great Pox.” (Syphilis, in case you didn’t know) Poetic justice? You decide.
Gordon Short, MD
7 Apr 2104