American Indian Demography at Contact

This research explores the population sizes of American Indian societies just prior to contact using archaeological and ethnohistoric data. It also explores the impact of interaction with Europeans on American Indian populations, and how the resulting depopulation impacted societies, cultures, and individuals.

Much of my work in this area has been determining methods for translating Iroquoian archaeological remains into population estimates. Cemetery populations are inaccurate because they do not reflect the living population at any one point in time. The best measure is domestic space. For Iroquoian societies, several research projects and historic documents established a connection between rooms in longhouses and number of people per room. From there, a constant of people per square meter of total village space was determined. This allows us to simply determine the area of a village and use it to estimate how many people were living there. This saves sites from extensive excavations, leading to better preservation. This strategy is also preferred by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people, who prefer sites to remain undisturbed.

I used these estimates to construct population curves for the Haudenosaunee nations from AD 1500-1700. These publications present my work:

Population History of the Onondaga and Oneida Iroquois, A.D. 1500–1700 (not available online yet; can be read in American Antiquity, vol. 75, no. 2, pp. 387-407.)

Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Population Trends in Northeastern North America (not available online yet; can be read in the Journal of Field Archaeology, vol. 35, pp. 5-18.

From there, I have become interested in learning more about how Old World diseases spread amongst American Indian populations and the impacts they had on societies, cultures, and individuals. I use a combination of archaeological research, spatial analysis, and ethnohistoric research to explore these topics. My first venture into this line of research is summarized in this article:

Using spatial analysis to estimate depopulation for Native American populations in northeastern North America, AD 1616–1645

I am currently expanding the geographic scale of this analysis to examine the overarching debate about Old World diseases in North America. One side believes diseases acted as pandemics, spreading immediately across most of the continent shortly after the earliest contacts in the early 1500s. The other side believes diseases were epidemics, spreading only after face-to-face contact in individual locations. This debate greatly influences our estimations of the pre-Columbian population of North America. If pandemics occurred, the earliest historic accounts are post-disease and populations were very high. If epidemics occurred, the earliest historic accounts are pre-disease and are accurate indicators of pre-Columbian American Indian population sizes. My research is trying to determine the relationship between first contact and depopulation episodes. My results will be first presented at the Society for American Archaeology Meetings in Honolulu, HI in April of 2013.

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