reasons stand out. Most of us know about the first two, but few
of us know about the last two. These are key facts in Native
American History. First off, when a European child got the measles,
he would usually live. And for the rest of his life he would
be immune. Adults who get measles are more likely to die than
children, so when adult Native Americans got the measles, it
was more deadly. The European adults had an acquired immunity,
but the adult Native Americans did not.
The second reason Native Americans were
historically so vulnerable to European diseases is that the Europeans
had gone through plague after plague, which wiped out large portions
of the European population again and again. This was natural
selection at work. The only ones who survived were those with
a greater genetic ability to withstand those particular diseases.
Throughout their history, Native Americans had very few plagues.
And since plagues hadn't killed those who could not withstand
the diseases, they had few, if any immunities to dangerous diseases.
But why didn't Native Americans have plagues?
The main reason is that historically, most of the European plagues
originally came from domesticated animals, and Europeans had
domesticated far more animals than Native Americans had. Thus
more plagues. Thus more genetic resistance to those diseases.
(Read more about
Native Americans had no cows, horses, chickens,
pigs, goats, sheep, geese, lamb, oxen, or donkeys. Throughout
European history, plagues came from close contact with an animal
that had a disease. The animal microbe crossed over to humans
and mutated into a human disease. Smallpox, for example, originally
came from a cow. Cows get cowpox, which doesn't invade humans
very successfully, but with continued contact, a strain developed
that did invade humans: Smallpox.
The third way Native Americans were vulnerable
is they are all descendants from a very small group. The gene
pool was limited. The immune system thrives on variety. The greater
the variety in the immune system, the greater number of microbes
it can recognize and therefore destroy. The purpose of sex, from
the gene's point of view, is to mix immune system capabilities
to gain a greater variety in the offsprings' immunity
Because the gene pool was so small, Native
Americans had less variety in their immune responses, so were
more vulnerable to disease.
And the fourth way they were more vulnerable
is that their culture had so little experience with plagues and
contagions, they had not historically developed good plague-preventing
customs. Since plagues had "plagued" Europe for so
long, Europeans learned to isolate sick people. They learned
to try to contain the spread of the disease.
Native Americans didn't have this accumulated
cultural knowledge. So when someone came down with smallpox,
for example, all his family and friends would gather to his bedside
and, without knowing it, be infected with the microbes. After
he died, his friends and family fanned out and infected others.
This practice made contagions spread quickly.
Most people know something about Native
American history. They know lots of Native Americans died from
disease. But new findings are showing the loss was much worse
than we have historically been taught. The reason it hasn't been
discovered until recently is that Europeans' first contacts with
Native Americans were brief. Europeans touched down at coastal
areas at first, and then went away. Of course, they unwittingly
left diseases that spread out from wherever they touched down,
and spread inland.
Because of the four vulnerabilities listed
above, the European diseases spread plague after deadly plague
across the land. In a period of 130 years, something like 95
percent of all Native Americans died of disease. That number
is far greater than experts (until recently) had ever suspected.
The Native Americans who survived the plagues
were, of course, completely demoralized and depressed by this
tremendous loss of their loved ones, of their lifestyle, and
of their ancient culture. And for most of these people, all of
this happened before a European ever encountered them.
So even first-hand accounts of "first
contact" with inland Native Americans were not with the
impressive cultures that recently ruled the land, not with the
splendor and wonder of intelligent cultures in full bloom, but
with the last remnants of a disaster on a scale we can hardly
If you'd like to read more about this,
I recommend the book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus, by Charles Mann.