How the European conquest affected Native Americans

Jan 24, 2012
How the European conquest affected Native Americans

Researchers from Germany and the United States suggest that the European conquest triggered the loss of more than half the Native American population. The results of their study provide new insight into the demise of the indigenous population. Experts recognise that Native Americans died while at war or due to diseases when Europeans first arrived in the Americas; the question this latest study addresses is how the overall population was impacted by the conquest. Extensive genetic analysis proved that a transient contraction in population sizes by some 50% occurred approximately 500 years ago. The findings substantiate historical records indicating how the European settlers impacted the peoples of North and South America: diseases, wars, famine and slavery all played a part. The study was presented in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Using the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of Native American women in North and South America, a two-man research team from the Göttingen University in Germany and the University of Washington in the United States drew up a family tree of contemporary and ancient Native peoples.

Overall, 137 mitochondrial genomes and 63 old subsequences of this genome were assessed. The researchers pointed out that the mitochondrial genome is passed on through the maternal lineage. Sophisticated bioinformational methods indicated how the Native American peaked around 5 000 years ago and then remained constant for millennia. About 500 years ago later, the population shrank by half.

"These losses were not limited to specific regions, but rather distributed across both American continents, with the severest impacts occurring in the most densely populated regions," said Dr. Lars Fehren-Schmitz of the Göttingen University. This decline did not last very long; the started to grow again quite quickly. "This new population growth suggests that the cause of the decline can only be attributable to fast- and short-acting factors, for example, from diseases brought over by the Europeans in combination with war and famine, and was not due to centuries-long processes, as is commonly assumed," he added.

Said Brendan O'Fallon of the University of Washington: 'We really saw a big, sudden decrease in population among the Native Americans about 500 years ago. That's, of course, right when the first arrived. It was sort of a new line of evidence that, really, confirmed, I think, what a lot of people's previous suspicions were but maybe hadn't really been documented in this one area.

"The basic idea behind that is that when a population size is fairly small, lots of people tend to share the same ancestors at about the same time. The bigger the population size, the longer it takes everyone to find a common ancestor. So, the tree is just overall bigger."

The duo also spatially reconstructed the historical population trends on North and South America by mapping the quick spread along the coastlines and across the continents of the first humans to settle in America. Approximately 15 000 to 17 000 years ago, these peoples migrated from Asia by crossing the Bering Strait, which today lies below sea level. But it was only later, after the individual groups had acclimatised to their new environments, that the population sizes grew substantially, according to the duo.

Explore further: Investigators insert large DNA sequence into mammalian cells

More information: O'Fallon, B. D. and Fehren-Schmitz, L., 'Native Americans experienced a strong population bottleneck coincident with European contact', PNAS, 2011. DOI: 10.10373/pnas.1112563108

Related Stories

Continents influenced human migration, spread of technology

Sep 19, 2011

How modern-day humans dispersed on the planet and the pace of civilization-changing technologies that accompanied their migrations are enduring mysteries. Scholars believe ancient peoples on Europe and Asia moved primarily ...

Recommended for you

Unlocking lignin for sustainable biofuel

4 hours ago

Turning trees, grass, and other biomass into fuel for automobiles and airplanes is a costly and complex process. Biofuel researchers are working to change that, envisioning a future where cellulosic ethanol, ...

Scientists develop free, online genetic research tool

5 hours ago

Technology rapidly is advancing the study of genetics and the search for causes of major diseases. Analysis of genomic sequences that once took days or months now can be performed in a matter of hours. Yet, ...

Why do strawberries taste so good?

14 hours ago

Each year, spectators at the Wimbledon tennis tournament get through a whopping 30 tons of strawberries in the course of a summer fortnight. It is no wonder that the association between Wimbledon and strawberries ...

Investigators insert large DNA sequence into mammalian cells

Jul 06, 2015

For the first time, researchers have used a simplified technique derived from a defense mechanism evolved by bacteria and other single-celled organisms to successfully insert a large DNA sequence into a predetermined genomic ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.