It has been several days since I read the report “Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492”, and I’m still having a hard time getting over the shock of these findings.
For the past several years I’ve been studying about Indigenous people and their practices and beliefs. I’m convinced that Indigenous wisdom and practices show us how we can live in harmony with Mother Earth, and begin to tackle our environmental devastation.
I’ve been reading so many stories of the settler colonialists relentlessly claiming more and more land, and killing Native men, women, and children in the process. Owning land not being a Native concept, the tribal leaders were tricked into signing treaties that forced them off the lands they lived and hunted on. And then those treaties were broken. Native Americans had trouble understanding how white men could be so dishonest.
It is hard enough to find accurate accounts of those days in the mid 1600’s. Even those stories don’t usually speak of the numbers of Natives killed during those times. As the article cited above says, there is even a term for this, the “Great Dying in the Americas”, although I think the “Great Killing” would be more accurate. Another term is “major indigenous depopulation event.”
It is important to note that a large percentage of these deaths were caused by diseases the Europeans brought with them, that Native Americans had little or no defenses against.
As I started to see some of the statistics of the Indigenous genocide in the Americas, I was shocked. I began to ask white people how many Native Americans they thought had been killed in the United States. The people I asked were noticeably uncomfortable with the question, and the guesses were usually in the thousands. People didn’t seem to believe me when I talked about the numbers being in the millions.
Obviously one key issue here is how do we know the populations of those living in the Americas during these times. This paper goes into great detail in describing how this was done. Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492 by Alexander Kocha, Chris Brierley, Mark M. Maslina, and Simon L.Lewis, Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 207, March 2019, Pages 13-36.
Summary from the paper:
- Combines multiple methods estimating pre-Columbian population numbers
- Estimates European arrival in 1492 lead to 56 million deaths by 1600
- Large population reduction led to reforestation of 55.8 Mha and 7.4 Pg C uptake (Mha – Mega Hectares and Pg C is gross CO2 uptake)
- 1610 atmospheric CO2 drop partly caused by indigenous depopulation of the Americas
- Humans contributed to Earth System changes before the Industrial Revolution
I try to imagine what 56 million people looks like. I found the combined populations of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. today is 26 million.
When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they caused so much death and disease that it changed the global climate, a new study finds.
European settlers killed 56 million indigenous people over about 100 years in South, Central and North America, causing large swaths of farmland to be abandoned and reforested, researchers at University College London, or UCL, estimate. The increase in trees and vegetation across an area the size of France resulted in a massive decrease in carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, according to the study.
Carbon levels changed enough to cool the Earth by 1610, researchers found. Columbus arrived in 1492,
“CO2 and climate had been relatively stable until this point,” said UCL Geography Professor Mark Maslin, one of the study’s co-authors. “So, this is the first major change we see in the Earth’s greenhouse gases.”
Researchers analyzed Antarctic ice, which traps atmospheric gas and can reveal how much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere centuries ago.European colonizers killed so many Native Americans that it changed the global climate, researchers say, Lauren Kent, CNN, 2/2/2019
“The ice cores showed that there was a larger dip in CO2 (than usual) in 1610, which was caused by the land and not the oceans,” said Alexander Koch, lead author of the study.
A small shift in temperatures — about a 10th of a degree in the 17th century — led to colder winters, frosty summers and failing harvests, Koch said.