Thursday, November 22, 2018

98% of 100,000,000

Or 90% of 25,000,000 - it's still a big number.

The number went up to 98%, the highest I have ever heard, of the percentage of the New World population killed by European diseases. That seems impossibly high, even to me, who has claimed a number of over 90% for over a decade myself. The estimates of original population have been rising over the years as well, up as high as 100,000,000 between North and South America together. Thirty million used to be scoffed at, but is now becoming a common estimate. The two estimated increases go together. Most of the people making estimates until recently have been Americans and Canadians, and the population density of the previous natives was low. It was indeed lower than in Mexico and points south, with perhaps only 5M over the whole expanse.  But it had also be greatly reduced by disease prior to the arrival of the Puritans, due to diseases picked up from traders, combined with opportunistic attacks on weakened tribes by other tribes.

The diseases went on before, wiping out natives before Europeans had come within a hundred miles of them in person.

It didn’t all stem from Columbus’s discovery. The English would have found land off the Grand Banks soon enough, and the Portuguese discovery of Brazil was also a foregone conclusion given their experimental forays off the coast of Africa. Whether it happened in 1000, 1500, or 1700 AD, there was going to be contact between peoples, one of which had far less resistance to the other’s diseases than the other.  Something similar happened in reverse in Africa, where it was the Europeans who died off of the local diseases, and we unable to penetrate for generations. The native susceptibility to alcohol also has inevitability written all over it.  That population was last sundered from Asia thousands of years before fermentation was discovered (possible Ukraine, possibly eastern Mediterranean).

Is there any plausible alt-history where contact was not a catastrophe for New World Natives? Germ theory was unknown, but even with strict sequestering, don’t the diseases have to get through?  Even the noblest and best possible behavior by the colonisers might have made little difference. I can’t even construct a plausible fantasy of how it could have turned out well.


Christopher B said...

What if Europe goes hermit after a brief period of exploration, as China did, giving New World natives enough exposure to develop resistance and enough time to recover population?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That looks better hundreds of years later, but isn't better that I can see. Populations develop resistance by some surviving while others die, so the New World natives just die on different timescales. They would have to be exposed to all the major killers.

I may be wrong on that.

Texan99 said...

I don't think you are. Populations that bunch up, especially with domestic animals, develop a herd resistance to crowd-based diseases by the cruel process of losing most of their children until future survivor populations can go toe-to-toe with the pathogens. Similarly, Africans developed a resistance to malaria by breeding from the few who could survive it, and to some extent by putting up with the horrors of sickle-cell genes (which confer resistance when presence singly while killing and crippling when present in pairs). If your population didn't pass that gauntlet slowly over past millennia, the dying-off will happen rapidly on first contact. The only alternative history I can imagine would involve Europeans, Africans, and New Worlders staying isolated until one group--let's just go out on a limb here and say Europeans--developed medical technology such as vaccines and anti-malarials.

james said...

98% sounds implausible. If everyone were in close contact, I could see that, but you'd think that more than 2% would head for the hills, so to speak.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think that was over the first 400 years of contact, with some epidemics wiping out huge numbers, others more modest amounts, but repeated attacks on tribes of new diseases.

The biggest numbers short term were cities being exposed, as in Mexico and Peru. Many of the diseases killed a lot of Europeans as well. Smallpox, for example. So the tribes in what are now Canada and the US did not succumb to European diseases at that rate, nor even 90%, even over the centuries.

Still, 98 is a big number. I had first heard 95% less than a decade ago, perhaps in the book 1493

dlr said...

100,000,000 is implausible. If there had been 100,000,000 Indians in the Americas, they would have had enough population density to have developed many communicable diseases themselves, and then the disease transfer would have gone both ways, and there would have been mass die offs among both the Europeans and the American Indians -- both populations would have been vulnerable to the others communicable diseases.

Texan99 said...

Some people do think syphilis arose in the New World. I agree about the dense-population disease development, but the Old World had had a longer experience with a greater number of population centers, and had domestic animals that the New World lacked. I don't know what kind of population numbers it would have taken to make the New World diseases as deadly to Europeans as the reverse.

Joseph said...

The most plausible scenario for minimizing the damage: Vaccination invented before long-distance sailing ships.