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Disease and demography in the Americas. Edited by John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker. Washington DC Smithsonian Istitution Press. 1992. 304 pp. ISBN 1-56098-163-6

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of the growth pattern of people before
H . sapiens. Its completeness assures the
best picture of our ancestor’s body and brain.
Of course the volume contains some disappointments. It does not, for example, place
much emphasis on the comparative biology
of other early hominids. Some of the chapters ignore key information contained in
earlier studies. The value of what is here,
however, overwhelms minor quibbles.
Edited by John W. Verano and Douglas H.
Ubelaker. Washington, DC: Smithsonian
Institution Press. 1992. 304 pp. ISBN
1-56098-163-6.$62 (cloth).
ease before and after contact.” These include
regional syntheses from the Southeastern
U.S. (Powell), Southwestern U S . (Stodder
and Martin), California Coast (Walker and
Johnson), New England (Carlson and coworkers), North Carolina (Bogdan and
Weaver), Ontario (Saunders and co-workers), Coastal Georgia (Larsen and co-workers), the Northern Plains (Owsley), and the
Andes (Verano), the only synthesis from below the Rio Grande. Two problems are obvious here, one that was avoidable and another that was not. The avoidable problem is
the lack of inclusion of comparative material
from Mexico, Central America, and South
America. A relative wealth of material does
exist from Mexico, and the editors would
have done well t o have included Ubelaker’s
own work from Ecuador. The unavoidable
problem, which will continue t o inhibit our
understanding of health changes around the
time of European colonization of the Americas, is the slim data base. Many of the chapters which are meant as regional summaries
could muster little data, or data that are
only tangentially relevant to the problem a t
Two of the more insightful chapters are by
Larsen and co-workers and Saunders and
co-workers. Although Saunders et al. do not
have a great deal of hard (osteological)data,
they make the best of what they have. In
particular their engrossing glimpse into issues of crowding, refuse disposal, diet, and
contact with animals provides insight into
the likely disease burden of pre-contact Ontario Iroquoians. Somewhat conversely, Larsen and co-workers have uncovered one of
the best data sets for comparing health before
and after contact. They do not disappoint, supplementing this rich osteological data set with
excellent insights from archaeology and writ-
At first glance, this attractive Smithsonian Institution Press volume seems like it
ought to adorn one’s coffee table. However, I
do not recommend trying to read it during
even the most unchallenging of television
shows. Within its appealing cover and
among its carefully typeset and edited pages
one finds an absorbing and provocative set
of articles. Whereas the general topic,
changes in disease and demography in the
Americas around the time of European contact and colonization, is not a new one in this
post-Quincentenary year, this volume provides a useful compendium of information
and summary of current theories.
This set of 27 articles derives from a symposium, part of the National Museum of
Natural History’s “Seeds of Change” program. The metaphor of “seeds of change” is
sprinkled heavily throughout. Herman Viola, the Director of the “Seeds of Change”
project, views the (‘encounter and exchange
set in motion by the Columbus voyages of
discovery” metaphorically in seeds of
change, which then “sent ripples around the
globe” (p. ix). The “seeds of change” project
selected five seeds for analysis: sugar,
maize, the horse, the potato, and disease.
This volume focuses on the passing of the
“bad s e e d of disease from Europe to the
The volume continues the organization of
a 2-day symposium, held in November 1989
at the Smithsonian Institution, and upon
which it is based. The 13 articles in Part I
are thematically linked as studies of “dis-
Department of Anthropology
University of California
ten accounts. Their emphasis on daily stresses
of work load and mild undernutrition is also a
nice corrective to the general focus on epidemics of infectious disease.
Three articles do not fit the regional sequence model. In a summary comment,
Aufderheide points out some of the complexities found in the articles and problems of
overgeneralization. Buikstra’s chapter is on
changes in stable carbon isotope ratios as
refections of the contribution of maize to dets, especially in the midcontinent. Buikstra
demonstrates two contrasting patterns of
maize increase, as suggested by bone chemistry data, and provides a useful backdrop
for understanding disease patterns. Ortner’s overview of paleopathological theory
and method stresses the need for careful observation, description, and methodology.
However, he then suggests that hypothesis
testing and theory development need to wait
on careful description and sound methodology. This seems far too linear a view of the
scientific enterprise, and one that frankly
misses a great deal of the action. Insights
and discoveries are not always dependent on
good methods.
The second part of the volume is titled
“Population Size Before and After Contact.”
This section includes articles from a number
of leading proponents of small or large precontact populations. Ubelaker starts off this
section with an effective review of population estimates for “pre-contact”North America and the Native American population
since contact. Ubelaker’s conclusion is that
regardless of estimated pre-contact population size, the American Indian population
underwent a devastating reduction, not
reaching a nadir until the end of the nineteenth century. Contact epidemics notwithstanding, Native Americans continued to experience severe consequences of colonization
well into the 1900s.
The remaining essays in this section focus
on different aspects of the population decline. Paralleling the first part of the volume, most chapters focus on regions, including the Southwestern U.S. (Thornton and
co-workers), the Northeastern U.S. (Snow),
the Amazon Basin (Meggers) and South-
western U.S. (separate chapters by Upham
and Reffl, the Northeast Coast (Boyd), and
the Andes (D. Cook). Other interesting chapters focus on particular events and keys to
disease spread: trade centers as foci for contagions (Dobyns), yellow fever and Africanization of the Caribbean (Kiple and Higgins), and
the 1832 Missouri River inoculation program
(Trimble). In reality, the split of parts into
disease and demography breaks down considerably and unavoidably. Many of the articles
in the second part provide interesting data on
disease, and many of the chapters in the first
part provide interesting speculation of demographic change.
What then does one learn from this volume? One message that is loud and clear is
that the Americas before European contact
were not disease free. Indeed, many essays
and the overview comments point this out
repeatedly. The most interesting comments
on this concern the ubiquity of tuberculosis
and the increasing rates with which
treponemal disease seems to be diagnosed in
pre-colonized peoples of the Americas. Other
chapters show evidence for malnutrition
and problems in refuse behavior. It is refreshing to see the variety and full dimension with which the problematic of cultural
contact is presented.
This volume is, and I think will remain, a
key source of information on disease and demographic consequences of European contact and colonization. It is not the last word
on the questions at hand, but a very well
constructed synthesis of the state of the data
and of theories in the early 1990s. What is
perhaps most important is how clearly this
effort at synthesis has brought into focus
newer questions such as tuberculosis before
1492, the relative significance of direct versus indirect contact, and whether the great
apparent demographic consequences of contact are real, and if so, what factors lead to
this variability.
School of Natural Science
Hampshire College
Amherst, Massachusetts
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163, 304, douglas, verano, 1992, ubelaker, isbn, disease, john, demographic, smithsonian, istitution, washington, 56098, edited, american, pres
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