Documenting colonialism: Millions killed, a changed climate & Europe gets richStudy raises questions about the impact of humans on nature and what that might mean for climate change in the future
By Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today
indiancountrytoday.com The destruction of the Indigenous world has been chronicled ever since Bartolomé de las Casas wrote “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” in 1552. He even described "more than thirty other islands in the vicinity of San Juan are for the most part and for the same reason depopulated, and the land laid waste. On these islands I estimate there are 2,100 leagues of land that have been ruined and depopulated, empty of people." Now a new study adds hard data, documenting the global cost of colonialism. Why does it matter? Because the invasion of the Americas changed everything on the planet. There was a death rate of more than 90 percent of the people, labeled "depopulation" in the scientific report. At that time, the Indigenous population of the Americas was 10 percent of the world's population and the home to the largest and most complex cities. The study also raises new questions about the “anthropogenic” or the impact of humans on nature and what that might mean for climate change policy in the decades ahead. The paper: “Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492,” was written by four geographers from University College London, Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark M. Maslin and Simon L. Lewis. The peer-reviewed article was published by Quaternary Science Reviews.
The evidence is complicated. The Indigenous Americas went through a rapid and dramatic shift; a before contact and after contact story. But the problem is that the evidence was “only documented in the decades after European contact.” So the scientists looked at indirect methods to calculate a hemispheric estimate. The first problem was trying to figure out how many people lived in the Americas. In Mexico, for example, the Europeans first arrived in 1519 but the first census took place in 1568 and other documentary evidence starts around 1540. That population evidence includes tributes, the size of armies, and settlement infrastructure. So looking at all of the evidence available today the University College London team came to the conclusion that the Indigenous population reached more than 60 million people before contact. That would have been about 10 percent of the world’s population and the cities in the Americas would have been among the most populous on the planet. In less than a hundred years that Indigenous America’s population was reduced to 5 or 6 million people; a population decline that exceeded 90 percent, the Great Dying. The scientists calculated how such a rapid population decline would change agriculture (think of what it took to feed 60 million people) and land. This is what happened when farmland became forest and jungle. And the scale of “regrowth” was huge, roughly a land mass twice the size of Colorado.
Reports of destruction following the arrival of Europeans in the Americas are not new. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies was written by Friar Bartolomé de las Casas in 1542 and published in 1552. It documented the mistreatment of and atrocities against Indigenous peoples.
So, now, what if that thinking is too small? There is now scientific evidence that links climate change to the first encounter and the cumulative destruction of Indigenous societies. Should there be an accounting? How would that work? Would the balance of accounts be broadened to include other industrial societies in Europe as well as the United States itself? There are also questions raised in this study about climate change policy. As one of the authors, Chris Brierley told BBC, “there is a lot of talk around ‘negative emissions’ approaching and using tree-planting to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to mitigate climate change. And what we see from this study is the scale of what’s required, because the Great Dying resulted in an area the size of France being reforested and that gave us only a few parts per million. This is useful; it shows us what reforestation can do. But at the same, that kind of reduction is worth perhaps just two years of fossil fuel emissions at the present rate.” Indeed the scale of this report, of this history, is daunting. But like any important study, this one by University College London opens up more questions than answers. Mark Trahant is the editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter @TrahantReports. This story originally appeared on Indian Country Today.
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