Bioarchaeology of Native American Adaptation in the Spanish Borderlands

Bioarchaeology of Native American Adaptation in the Spanish Borderlands

Bioarchaeology of Native American Adaptation in the Spanish Borderlands

Bioarchaeology of Native American Adaptation in the Spanish Borderlands

Synopsis

Most researchers of the European settlement of North America assume that Native American populations were decimated solely and uniformly by introduced disease. Baker and Kealhofer challenge that assumption, demonstrating that Native American societies responded to European encroachment in complex and varied ways. They draw on data from population case studies in what is now the southern United States to establish convincingly that archaeological and bioanthropological research are powerful tools for cultural interpretation.

Excerpt

The Columbian Exchange, the meeting of East and West that began with the initial voyage of Christopher Columbus, brought great changes to the world. One aspect of that exchange was the European colonization of the Americas, a process that took place in the context of a hemispheric-wide demographic collapse: for in the several centuries following 1492, Native American populations suffered precipitous reductions. Some native groups ceased to exist, while others adapted to the new world that was taking shape around them and of which they were a part.

This volume is composed of a group of essays that focus on the nature of that demographic collapse. the contention is that such a catastrophe indeed did take place. But the process was much more variable than that proposed by those scholars who believe the collapse resulted from disease-caused pandemics that swept across North and South America. This latter model holds that in only a few short years a single epidemic could have spread from the Great Lakes to Tierra del Fuego, devastating the native groups who had no immunities to smallpox, measles, and other diseases introduced into the Americas by European explorers and early colonists.

Editors Brenda Baker and Lisa Kealhofer argue that in contrast to this pandemic model are data showing that the responses by Native Americans to the presence of people from Europe were not uniform. Many groups did adapt to conditions of the post-Columbian era, and those adaptations varied by culture and circumstance. Epidemics were circumscribed, affecting different populations in different ways. and different cultural factors--such as population densities and the nature of European contact situations--led to different epidemiological and demographic outcomes. As a result, some Native American groups disappeared within several decades after 1492, while others were relatively unaffected for several centuries. From examining the cultural and biological contexts of specific contact situations, a more accurate model explaining the impact of that contact can be developed.

This perspective on population collapse in the Americas is illustrated with case studies taken from the region that today is the southern United States:

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