News and Commentary

Columbus Day: What Really Killed So Many Natives Post-Contact?

Diseases of Eurasian origin were the primary cause of the post-Columbian Americas’ depopulation of its earliest human inhabitants, according to Jared Diamond’s analysis in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel (GGS). This fact runs contrary to ahistorical narratives of “genocide” pushed by neo-Marxist historians such as Howard Zinn.

GGS’ thesis synthesizes how geographical and environmental forces shape human history; broadly explaining how such forces drove Eurasian civilizations to largely supplant those in Africa, Australia, the Americas, and other regions.

Fifteenth century Europeans unknowingly carried with them microbial lethality — smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera — across the Atlantic to the New World. Domestication of animals and subsequent animal husbandry, almost exclusively Eurasian at the time, afforded Christopher Columbus’ 1492 expedition and subsequent European arrivals to the Americas a deadly tool of conquest.

Diamond explains how diseases deadly to the native Americas evolved among Eurasian peoples:

Of equal importance in wars of conquest were the germs that evolved in human societies with domestic animals. Infectious diseases like smallpox, measles, and flu arose as specialized germs of humans, derived by mutations of very similar ancestral germs that had infected animals. The humans who domesticated animals were the first to fall victim to the newly evolved germs, but those humans then evolved substantial resistance to the new diseases. When such partly immune people came into contact with others who had had no previous exposure to the germs, epidemics resulted in which up to 99 percent of the previously unexposed population was killed. Germs thus acquired ultimately from domestic animals played decisive roles in the European conquests of Native Americans, Australians, South Africans, and Pacific islanders.

Because diseases have been the biggest killers of people, they have also been decisive shapers of history.

The introduction of new diseases to the New World post-contact wrought destruction upon the Americas’ peoples, according to Diamond:

The grimmest examples of germs’ role in history come from the European conquest of the Americas that began with Columbus’s voyage of 1492. Numerous as were the Native American victims of the murderous Spanish conquistadores, they were far outnumbered by the victims of murderous Spanish microbes.

The importance of lethal microbes in human history is well illustrated by Europeans’ conquest and depopulation of the New World. Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords. Those germs undermined Indian resistance by killing most Indians and their leaders and by sapping the survivors’ morale. For instance, in 1519 Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico with 600 Spaniards, to conquer the fiercely militaristic Aztec Empire with a population of many millions. That Cortes reached the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, escaped with the loss of “only” two-thirds of his force, and managed to fight his way back to the coast demonstrates both Spanish military advantages and the initial naivete of the Aztecs. But when Cortes’s next onslaught came, the Aztecs were no longer naive and fought street by street with the utmost tenacity. What gave the Spaniards a decisive advantage was smallpox, which reached Mexico in 1520 with one infected slave arriving from Spanish Cuba. The resulting epidemic proceeded to kill nearly half of the Aztecs, including Emperor Cuitlahuac. Aztec survivors were demoralized by the mysterious illness that killed Indians and spared Spaniards, as if advertising the Spaniards’ invincibility. By 1618, Mexico’s initial population of about 20 million had plummeted to about 1.6 million.

Pizarro had similarly grim luck when he landed on the coast of Peru in 1531 with 168 men to conquer the Inca Empire of millions. Fortunately for Pizarro and unfortunately for the Incas, smallpox had arrived overland around 1526, killing much of the Inca population, including both the emperor Huayna Capac and his designated successor.

When we in the United States think of the most populous New World societies existing in 1492, only those of the Aztecs and the Incas tend to come to our minds. We forget that North America also supported populous Indian societies in the most logical place, the Mississippi Valley, which contains some of our best farmland today. In that case, however, conquistadores contributed nothing directly to the societies’ destruction; Eurasian germs, spreading in advance, did everything. When Hernando de Soto became the first European conquistador to march through the southeast- ern United States, in 1540, he came across Indian town sites abandoned two years earlier because the inhabitants had died in epidemics. These epidemics had been transmitted from coastal Indians infected by Spaniards visiting the coast. The Spaniards’ microbes spread to the interior in advance of the Spaniards themselves.

Diamond estimates the population of North America to have been roughly 20 million people in 1492. Within two centuries, approximately 95% of these people were dead, almost entirely killed by disease; a similar proportion of all the Americas’ peoples fell to disease across the same timeframe. According to Germs, Guns and Steel:

Estimates now suggest an initial number of around 20 million Indians. For the New World as a whole, the Indian population decline in the century or two following Columbus’s arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95 percent.

For the New World as a whole, the Indian population decline in the century or two following Columbus’s arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95 percent.

The main killers were Old World germs to which Indians had never been exposed, and against which they therefore had neither immune nor genetic resistance. Smallpox, measles, influenza, and typhus competed for top rank among the killers. As if these had not been enough, diphtheria, malaria, mumps, pertussis, plague, tuberculosis, and yellow fever came up close behind. In countless cases, whites were actually there to witness the destruction occurring when the germs arrived. …

Cumulative mortal- ities of these previously unexposed peoples from Eurasian germs ranged from 50 percent to 100 percent. For instance, the Indian population of Hispaniola declined from around 8 million, when Columbus arrived in A.D. 1492, to zero by 1535.

With Columbus Day falling on Monday (the second Monday of October) political and news media observers will note condemnations of the Italian explorer and calls for the end of commemorating his discovery of the Americas for Medieval Europe.

TIME argues for the replacement of Columbus Day with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”; USA Today’s Democrat and Chronicle derides Columbus as a “false hero”; CNN hypes neo-Marxist agitation against Columbus Day as reflective of broad popular opinion.

Moving further left, Salon frames Columbus Day as a celebration of “genocide”; The Harvard Crimson derided Columbus as “genocidal”; and MSNBC’s Craig Melvin dismisses Columbus Day as “the most ridiculous” American “holiday.”

In August, Los Angeles’ city council voted to replace Columbus Day with ”Indigenous People’s Day.”

Follow Robert Kraychik on Twitter.

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