Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On an Alternative Explanation for Human Demographic History: Or, I Don't Believe in Plague

I was so struck by the cleverness of my "unsettling of America" subtitle last time that it failed to cross my mind that it might not be read as the kind of revisionist contrarianism that I normally peddle here.

I want to argue that the emergence of European demand for furs caused a widespread cultural modification of the Eastern Woodlands in favour of fur production. So my "unsettling" is a human abandonment of the bottomlands, perhaps with very few significant human consequences. The "settling" is their resettlement. Largely between 1760 and 1776, in response to the crisis in the fur trade upon which early Americanist/military historian Walter Dunn insists so strongly, the Indians came down from the upper benches, built towns in the bottoms at places like Cooperstown, and chose to become Americans. Scalp/ceremonial poles became Liberty Trees became flagpoles, Earth Lodges became Masonic Temples, and the councillors all went to Congress in 1794.

But it's the general consensus that the Americas were "unsettled," in the sense of being depopulated, in the wake of first contact with Europeans. I cast around on Youtube briefly for a canned explanation, and found much that was dramatic and pseudo-plausible. But also this, which is fun:

Poor Gwen Stefani. It's an old story: she comes, she goes. It's unfair that someone like Gwen Stefani can't come back from a maternity break, that bringing new life into the world ends a woman's (public) life. Biology should not rule us! On the other hand, if you don't like Gwen Stefani, her sudden emergence and equally sudden disappearance is typical of a kind of artist and, well, like.... Well, it's like a plague. Biology should rule us! At least if it comes to getting rid of annoying girl singers. If anyone disliked Gwen Stafani (hard to believe), that's perhaps what they would think.

Pop culture's like that. Things come, go, get all jingle-jangled up 'till we have no idea what ever happened. Was that ship of corpses that carried death into the land the one that carried the Black Plague into Sicily, or Dracula into Whitby? I forget. Or was it both? Are the two things all mixed up? Subversive, infectious dangers from the East, come to take our wimmins?

I know this, though: I jumped into the middle of the story of the unsettling of America because the story makes no sense. Maybe I should try to, y'know, communicate why I think that.

Now, let's be clear about what actually happened. In January, 1348, Italy saw the first outbreak of a pandemic disease that swept Europe, and perhaps all Eurasia. Starting perhaps as early as 1492, Eurasian epidemic diseases not encountered in the Americas before broke out as potentially continental pandemics, killing vast numbers of people.

Who would argue with either? It happens every January, and some Januaries are worse than others. Still, you'll say, the Black Plague was worse, and no historic disease has killed off 90% of the pre-plague population, like the post-Contact, pre-documentation epidemics of the Americas. The 1919 Spanish Flu outbreak, which came closest, may even demonstrate that  "normal" epidemic death rates might be exogenous. The flu only killed that many people because of the stresses of the First World War. Or perhaps not. The Wikipedia article on the Black Plague currently opens with a heaping serving of exogenity: 1348 was a particularly bad time for people's healths, perhaps part of the reason that the epidemic was particularly serious.

Or maybe we're just running into the whole "Waning of the Middle Ages" thing again. How much of what we know about the bleak times prevailing in Europe in 1348 is accurate social history, and how much of it is partisan historians of religion setting the stage for Martin Luther? Per Wikipedia, again, the  (pre-plague) population of Britain at anywhere between 3 and 7 million (I'm sure that I've seen a range of 2 to 5 million also cited), and certainly no-one counted the death rates from any of the pre-plague or Plague events. Cue endless arguments over proxy datasets that try to get around this problem.

You might wonder, given how inexact the data is, how we can even be sure of what the death rates from the disease itself might have been. Well, some people wonder. Others seem very, very certain. (Including our Wikipedia specialist, who asserts that recent scholarship is pushing the numbers up --while ignoring the revisionists.) In 1998, Africanist David Henige, replying to the apotheosis of "high counts" of precontact American, brilliantly entitled his attack Numbers From Nowhere. Henige isn't a defender of "low counts." He's just calling for statistical honesty. Or, to put it another way, "hey, historians. Stop making shit up."

No shit, dude. World historians love them their apocalypses. And some, at least, will get to them any way that they can.

Well, here's the thing: epidemics aren't like that. A Google search for expected pandemic death rates turned up this neat Australian paper taking an infection rate of 30% with a death rate of 5% as the severest case that needed studying. After two centuries of "modern" global pandemics, we have pretty good data for making these estimates. They include not just flu pandemics, but at least one, and possibly two new diseases. If you've read Plagues and Peoples, you will know that McNeill makes a big deal of the role of new diseases in breaking through historical, demographically irrelevant but massively socially disruptive death rates. The fact that cholera, typhoid fever, polio, and even AIDS have failed to wipe out populations is telling.

In a perverse way, the most telling fact I came across the last time I researched this was the 1885 Chicago cholera epidemic, which killed 90,000 people. Now that's an epidemic! Except that it never happened. It seems to have been made up to garnish a newspaper story on the centennial of the city sanitation board in 1889 in response to an 1885 scare over water quality. If people can make up that stuff about 1885 Chicago, how in Heaven's name are we supposed to credit stories from 1348, or post-Columbus/pre-contact America? People exaggerate.

Of course, Black Plague is special, you'll say. And I'll agree. Not on the basis of the facts, but on the role of the "Red Plague" in finishing off the survivors at the end of H. G.Well's 1907 apocalyptic novel, War in the Air. It's a neat finish that moves our protagonist from involvement in great things to a libertarian life of a pig farmer in the Weald. As a plot device, the "Red Plague" works fine, and it's been used a great deal since to clear up the loose ends after the bombers have waged Armageddon. But when Wells wrote, it was only 11 years since the world took cognizance of the so-called "Third Pandemic" of Yersinia pestis "The Bubonic Plague/Black Death/Black Plague),  when cases were reported in British India.

So what? The story of the Third Pandemic is this:

i) Initial failure to control its spread in India; Critics raise questions about the legitimacy of the British Raj.
ii) Massive state intervention; critics suggest that these are as much about extending imperialism as fighting disease.
iii) People point to the much more effective efforts to control the Third Pandemic in Hong Kong as evidence that British colonial rulers know what's up.
iv) Bubonic plague shows up at Shenyang/Mukden, Liaoning Province [Manchuria], then under Russian control. The Russians set out to prove that they're quite as good at imposing progress/pushing Asiatics around  as the British. Here's a very depressing link on the results. The takeaway here is that the 1911 report on the plague at Mukden is (inhuman) rubbish. This is pretty important, since Mukden is, at this point, the only historic evidence for widespread airborne transmission of Yersinia pestis.
v) Bubonic plague spreads to Honolulu, Hawaii in 1900. Measures taken there include burning the Chinatown (the official story here cited denies the intention of burning the city, putting race, imperialism (again), and the legend that the Great Fire of London purged the city of this foreign disease together into one poisonous piece of Jim Crow.
vi) Bubonic plague spreads to San Francisco, where the epidemic continues for ten years, suggesting that one might use the San Francisco Earthquake as a testcase for the alleged purgative effects of the London Fire. Race gets thoroughly mixed into the story.

The story, for H. G. Wells, then, is of more than  convenient device for ending his novel. The Black Plague has become oh, let's use the jargon here, a contested site in which narratives of progress, imperialist oppression, and nature striking back compete for salience. Very interesting, and you can see why people made a big deal of the Bubonic Plague. In fact, made a big deal of it even before it reached San Francisco. Here's the then-Surgeon General of the United States on the state of the art, and also a pocket history that puts the "othering" of Bubonic Plague back into the early Nineteenth Century and before, and the age of the Cordon Sanitaire. (Warning: very slow loading times, which is why I gave up on browsing and linked to p. 5. I think it was rather faster the last time I read it, so it might be something to look at in low traffic hours. Thanks to Cornell University for putting this excellent resource up, BTW!)

But here's the thing: only 280 San Franciscans died in ten years. Yersinia pestis has been endemic in the American Southwest ever since, without the death rate rising to the level of the first ten years. This is bizarre. People who go out into the tall grass in shorts and sandals in the summer get fleabitten. Their pets pick up fleas and take them inside. We probably don't know all possible Yersinia pestis vectors. Well, here's the thing: lots of people seem to catch "Bubonic Plague" without even realising it. It turns out that the normal modality of Yersinia pestis infection is probably asymptomatic. It's only people whose immune systems fail under the onslaught who show symptoms. And these people, for that reason, are in trouble.

And thus at one go, seriologists have turned the greatest killer in human history into so much iatrogenic junk. (To borrow a friend's description of SARS.) It's pretty much what the revisionists have been saying all along about the idea that the "Black Death" of 1348 was an outbreak of Yersinia pestis. The medical and zoological facts just won't support the theory, clever Gwen Stefani parody or no. (And I encourage you to look at Cohn's book if you're interested in following this up. Your objections have been anticipated.)

That does, admittedly, leave the great dying. I can talk about "normal" epidemics. I can talk about "numbers from nowhere." But this factoid seems well entrenched. But then, the factoid about Hawaii suffering a similar depopulation event between contact in 1778 and the first census in 1830. And then someone came up with an approach to actually test the hypothesis, and we now know that the population of native Hawaiians actually grew over this period! Talk about slow-loading, here's Tom Dye and Eric Komori's work, presented as a PDF. Here's the doyen of the field's critique, which strike me as scarcely destructive.

And here's a very brief introduction to the subject that genuflects towards the science before moving on to the real question in the author's mind, the number of "native" Hawaiians who are pure-bloods, as opposed to (gasp) mixed-blood.

The amazing thing, to my mind, is that that last link isn't to some crazy person posting on Stormfront or Alternet. That's mainstream thinking about public policy in 21st Century North America. I began this post by briefly summarising my theory of the demographic history of North America: that most of the Indians on the continent became "white" Canadians and Americans in the decades between 1760 and 1850. That's why population growth figures for this period are so unrealistically high, and why race, and irrational ideas about race, are so important to this narrative. It's our desire to police the boundaries of race that leads us to whitewash the face of North America  in the crucial historical caesura between 1492 and 1607, readying the rooms for a new tenant.

Admittedly, now that I've wrestled the paintbrush away with my Google-fu. I plan on using it, too. It's just that I'm going to talk about "the human proclivity to procreate." Or, more specifically, randy sailors who couldn't keep it in their pants until they got back to Liverpool.


  1. The wikipedia entry on the 1918 spanish flu reports large mortality on (genetically restricted) islands in the pacific and cites some academic work on labor supply.
    The founding population of America from DNA analysis was about as large as the founding population of the pacific islands and presumably would have had population losses on that scale for each individual epidemic that they encountered during the Columbian exchange.

  2. But you would have to demonstrate that founder population bears some relationship with one or more of the factors governing mortality rate in a pandemic. At the moment, apart from malaria, all that we have is speculation. People's immune systems do not appear to be one of the things that varies across human populations.

    Moreover, the island cases cited in Wikipedia still only demonstrate mortality rates at the high end of the 3--5% total pre-epidemic population loss rate, with the exception of the death rates claimed for Eastern Samoa. (Which are still too low to bear comparison with the Columbian holocaust theory.)We could also have a conversation about the historical context of those claims. IIRC, there were vested interests in exaggerating the misdeeds of New Zealand's trusteeship.

    Multiple epidemics don't get us very far, either. Death rates from epidemics are concentrated in vulnerable demographic subgroups. This, in itself, is why epidemics don't normally chase each other's tails. Once all of the old people are dead, a new flu can't kill all the old people until there are more old people.

    Again, it is worth noting that no epidemic for which we have reliable statistics killed anything even vaguely close to the proportion of the population required in the Columbian holocaust. This leads us to two possibilities: arguing that these populations were special in a way not currently known to medical science; or discarding the hypothesis in favour of exploring alternate historical explanations.

    Me? Historian, not immunologist. So I'm trying the historical line of attack. As I've said before, I don't just have skepticism about death rates. I have a use for these not-killed-after-all people in my hypothesis.

  3. Bryan Sykes, DNA USA, has chromosome maps of Mayflower descendants that show little Asian input, but at least some. Presumably these are American Indians, either from New England or the Caribbean, but almost certainly New England, because they show very little African influence.
    Ah well, the way that DNA arrays are getting cheaper and better we'll just have to wait five years and see what really happened, if not why.