DNA evidence offers proof of North American native population decline due to arrival of Europeans

(PhysOrg.com) -- Most history books report that Native American populations in North America declined significantly after European colonizers appeared, subsequent to the “discovery” of the new world by Christopher Columbus in 1492, reducing their numbers by half or more in some cases. Most attribute this decline in population to the introduction of new diseases, primarily smallpox and warfare. To back up such claims, historians have relied on archaeological evidence and written documents by new world settlers. Up to now however, no physical evidence has been available to nail down specifics regarding population declines, such as when they actually occurred and what caused it to occur. Now however, three researchers with various backgrounds in anthropological and genome sciences have banded together to undertake a study based on mitochondrial DNA evidence, and have found, as they report in their study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that native populations in North America did indeed decline by roughly fifty percent, some five hundred years ago.

What’s perhaps most interesting in the study, is the implication that the sudden drop in population appeared to occur almost right after the arrival of Europeans, which means before settlement began. This means that the decline would have come about almost exclusively as a result of disease sweeping naturally through native communities, rather than from warfare, or mass slaughter as some have suggested and that stories of settlers using smallpox as a weapon may be exaggerated.

Also of interest is that the researchers found that the native population peaked some 5,000 years ago, and held steady, or even declined slightly, until the arrival of Europeans, and that the population decline that occurred was transient, meaning that it gradually rebounded as those Native Americans that survived the initial wave of smallpox passed on their hearty genes to the next generation.

The results of this research also seem to settle the argument of whether the massive loss of life due to disease was regional, as some historians have argued, or widespread as others have claimed; siding firmly with the latter.

In studying the , of both pre-European arrival native population samples and that of their ancestors alive today, the researchers noted that those alive today are more genetically similar to one another than were their ancestors, which suggests a population decline and then resurgence, and that is how, by backtracking, they came to conclude that the decline occurred half a century ago. The authors are quick to point out however that the margin of error in their work does allow for the possibility that the occurred somewhat later than their results showed and note that further research will need to be done to create a more precise timeline of events.

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More information: Native Americans experienced a strong population bottleneck coincident with European contact, PNAS, Published online before print December 5, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1112563108

The genetic and demographic impact of European contact with Native Americans has remained unclear despite recent interest. Whereas archeological and historical records indicate that European contact resulted in widespread mortality from various sources, genetic studies have found little evidence of a recent contraction in Native American population size. In this study we use a large dataset including both ancient and contemporary mitochondrial DNA to construct a high-resolution portrait of the Holocene and late Pleistocene population size of indigenous Americans. Our reconstruction suggests that Native Americans suffered a significant, although transient, contraction in population size some 500 y before the present, during which female effective size was reduced by ∼50%. These results support analyses of historical records indicating that European colonization induced widespread mortality among indigenous Americans.

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Citation: DNA evidence offers proof of North American native population decline due to arrival of Europeans (2011, December 6) retrieved 18 September 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2011-12-dna-evidence-proof-north-american.html
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Dec 06, 2011
It must fit the political narrative to attribute this evidence of a population decline to the putative causation by the arrival of Europeans rather than to the simultaneous change in climate due to the Little Ice Age.
The fact is, a lot was happening around 500 years ago, and the causality cannot be fragmented. It may be worth noting here that population decline is observed in some indigenous groups *before* contact with Europeans can be established.

Dec 06, 2011
"decline occurred half a century ago."

Should be 'millennium'.

Also, there was a major drop in populations, at least on the west coast, around 1300. Probably due to a plague coming up from Central America. The Ancestral Puebloan Peoples and groups in the SF Bay area were almost wiped out.

Dec 06, 2011
I think it's ridiculous how all of the commenters thus far try to downplay the role white Europeans played in the massive die-off of a continent full of people. The Pueoblan are an exception, not a rule, and please cite your sources that show a large decline of the SF Bay area people pre-Spanish contact. Disease threw 4000 year old cultures into shock, white settlers continued the process, and then the government got into the game. The history of the US is one long sordid tale of stealing land from Indians and killing them if they resisted. Every square inch of both the east and west coast was property of a specific tribe, often a specific family, and had been for generations. There were politics, histories, songs, poems, myths, lifeways, wars, famines, etc just like everywhere else on the planet and now nearly all of these have been lost due to disease brought by the white man and greed brought by the white man. I'm not sure why you're all so interested in denying that.

Dec 06, 2011
the discovery of the new world by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

It's was an invasion, conquer and pillage for land and resource, no ifs and buts about it. Humans are such pathological liars. They can't even face the bare truth.

Dec 06, 2011
the discovery of the new world by Christopher Columbus in 1492

It's was a bare-faced invasion, conquer and pillage for land and riches. Victors always has a way to whitewash the bastardy deeds by weasel words. All written histories and historians sucks.

Dec 06, 2011
the discovery of the new world by Christopher Columbus in 1492

It's was a bare-faced invasion, conquer and pillage for land and riches. Victors and media manipulators always has a way to whitewash the bastardy deeds by weasel words.

Dec 06, 2011
Pirouette I understand you are trying to highlight some of the benefits of colonisation but the way in which it was done can not be defended morally.

We know the first cultures weren't perfect but neither were the europeans who enslaved people like other cultures enslaved before them...I dont think native americans today would want you to be deported...I THINK THEY JUST WANTED YOU NOT TO DENY the murder, rape and pillage....I bet you demand of the mexicans to integrate...its laughable hypocrisy...all californian natives are extinct well done well done great pride..WOO AMERICA AMERICA.....ooo dear history is a cancerous mess !

Dec 06, 2011
whoa. I'll leave the policy implications up to you, I think more than anything a firm cultural grasp of the history of our land (the U.S.) has fundamental implications to how we perceive, interact, and use our landscapes. It's not about blaming the people here now for what happened in the past without their consent, but about recognizing how that past have given us a cultural framework that fails to account for limited natural resources, relying on infinite growth in a finite system. we have a historical and physical relationship to the land. The energetics of that relationship define the sustainability of our culture in a defined geographic area, now defined as the earth. Wars are for resources, land is for power. The land's ability to produce energy fuels the wars. At some point the energy we require to maintain our culture is greater than what the land can sustain and we incur an energy deficit. anyway.

Dec 07, 2011
Sorry for the multiple posts. When I tried to post, all I saw was a page full of html codes and the like a couple of times!

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