Native Americans--Pre-Contact

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Relations between early European explorers and Native Americans in North America got off to a rough start. The Europeans were invasive, selfish, and over-powering, and they offered the Native Americans little in return for their demands. Any Natives who chose to resist the Europeans were often met with aggressive behavior and punishment. Eventually, the Native Americans stood up for their tribe and fought back, and with neither side backing down, bloodshed became commonplace. Many lives were lost on both sides of the war effort, but the numbers are pale in comparison to the death toll that amounted from causes off of the battlefield. This paper will provide evidence that the Native American population was severely decimated by factors other than direct violence with European settlers. Specifically, it will explain the types and severity of diseases brought from Europe to North and Central America and how they affected the Native Americans, the impact that the introduction of alcohol initially had on the Native Americans, and explain how that impact continued to affect members of Native American tribes long after the battles had ceased.

Prior to European exploration efforts, Native American tribesmen enjoyed a relatively disease-free environment. Epidemics ravaging through civilizations thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean were isolated in Europe, and Native Americans were focusing on hunting and farming rather than their health. However, this quickly changed following the very first encounters with European explorers. As Christopher Columbus and his crew landed on islands in the Caribbean, viruses that were brought with them from Europe were transmitted to the unsuspecting Natives. A small epidemic eventually spread throughout the island of Cuba, and it is believed to have reached the American mainland “by Chontal Maya merchants who regularly sailed between Yucatan and Cuba” (Examiner). In time, this disease, which was unknown at the time, spread to other Native American tribes in Central and North America. By 1513, the disease had spread as far as the southeastern portion of the United States, and entire villages had been devastated and abandoned, while other areas survived but were severely weakened. In 1520, Hernan Cortes planned an attack on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, but it was “estimated that 40% of its population died of the disease” (Examiner). With this help, Cortes was successful in his attempt to conquer the Aztec Empire. Unfortunately, the Aztecs were not the only group who fell victim to the unintended biological onslaught. Francisco Pizzaro led a very small army south through Central America and easily defeated the Incan Empire in 1528, while Hernando de Soto trekked north and conquered areas in the southeastern United States (Examiner). These invasions would have been nearly impossible in the late 15th century, but because the indigenous peoples had not been exposed to diseases of the East, European explorers came out of Central America victorious.

Several different Old World diseases affected the Native Americans, including influenza, measles, and cholera. When the estimated death totals of diseased Natives in Central America are combined, the numbers are astonishing. The Native American population in Mexico fell by over 20 million, Peru by over 8 million, and Hispaniola’s entire Native civilization nearly went extinct, all before the beginning of the 17th century. To put these numbers in perspective, “the Native population of North America fell by 74 percent between 1492 and 1800, while that of the American hemisphere as a whole plummeted by 89 percent between 1492 and 1650” (Calloway 84-85). Without a doubt, the most devastating of the Old World diseases was smallpox. In Europe, the disease was certainly capable of being fatal, but was much more controllable than in the Americas, as proven with statistical evidence. According to historian Melissa Sue Haverson,...