Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

August 1994


Published in Great Plains Research 4:2 (August 1994). Copyright © 1994 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Used by permission.


Disease and Demography in the Americas addresses an important issue in history of European-Native American interaction: what was the disease impact of European contact? A collection of papers came from a 1989 Smithsonian sponsored conference "Disease and Demography in the Americas, Changing Patterns Before and After 1492," this edited volume addresses disease and demography on a regional basis. The first section, "Disease before and after contact" confronts the evidence of prehistoric and historic disease in North America, while the second section, "Population size before and after contact" deals with Native American population reduction at the time of contact and a subsequent increase when Native American" populations developed resistance, either cultural or biological, to European diseases.

The thirteen papers in the first section put to rest any notion that disease was rare among prehistoric Native Americans. There is abundant evidence from many regions in North America and South America that disease was a common aspect of life for many prehistoric populations due to intensifying agricultural strategies coupled with population growth in various ecological regimes, some of which promoted disease. However, disease was variable in type and prevalence between regions. Consequently, the impact of European contact on Native Americans was variable. For example, the Spanish Entrada in Florida resulted in the rapid decline of health. In contrast, Plains peoples in South Dakota thrived in the period immediately after contact. Thus, the nature of disease before contact and the impact of disease after contact varied between region and population.