Native American Disease Mortality Rate Post Columbus

When Columbus set sail in 1492 to find a new passage to the East Indies, he didn’t know it yet, but the world was to be forever changed. Upon his arrival Native Americans populations would never be the same. This chart shows the Native American disease mortality rate in the years following Columbus’ arrival.

Estimates vary greatly as to how many people lived in the Americas in pre-Colombian times (1491). At the low end, scholars estimate 10 million people total. On the high end, over 100 million people. Likely it was somewhere in between, with most modern accounts in the 50-60 million range. For reference, the continent of Europe held 70-80 million people at the time.

Native American Disease Mortality Rate Post Columbus

Native American Disease Mortality Rate Post Columbus chart

The European explorers and colonizers brought with them a deadly weapon. No, not guns and horses (though they did bring those), their deadliest weapon was inadvertent: disease. Living in isolation from the European and Asian continents for over 13,000 years, the Native American population had no exposure to some of the deadly diseases Europeans were more accustomed to. These include smallpox, influenza and measles among others.

The diseases spread like wildfire between indigenous communities. Often times, Europeans would not even have visited a tribe, only to find that they had been wiped out by various diseases.

Instead of one massive waves of disease, what likely happened was that there were multiple outbreaks over several years. Smallpox could kill a large number of a tribe, then measles would take another large portion of who remained, then influenza would have its turn. Long before The Mayflower arrived, the local communities had been decimated.

Scholars call this time period The Great Dying. Of the 50-60 million Native American population in 1491, anywhere from 80-95% died from European diseases a century after Columbus’ arrival. This amounted to roughly 10% of the global population at the time.

The Great Dying thus amounts to the single largest mortality event in human history (in terms of percent of global population). World War II deaths and the 1918 influenza pandemic both rival this in terms of total deaths, but neither come close in percent of global population.

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Source: Journal of Economic Perspectives

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