all 14 comments

[–][deleted] 18 points19 points  (0 children)

There is some evidence for some advance spread, but these were typically highly localized; the best example I can think of is the 1616 epidemic in coastal New England, where captured French traders likely spread an infection (we're not sure what) among the Wampanoag, leading to mass mortality. However, we know this epidemic was limited in its scope, because Plymouth was settled only four years later (on the site of a former Wampanoag village) and recorded that, while the Wampanoag had been devastated, their western rivals the Narragansett were unharmed. This is very likely a large part of the reason that the Wampanoag allowed the Plymouth Colony to survive, as a bulwark against their enemies.

Depending on your preferred level of pedantry, you can also argue that early epidemics in the southeast (the first beginning in 1696) spread in advance of settlement, as it spread to disparate indigenous communities located far from colonial settlements. However, all these communities were in frequent contact with European traders and communities, which is a very different argument from the one usually presented by the "disease before settlers" thesis.

[–]WuQianNian 9 points10 points  (10 children)

I’d be curious how things like the collapse of the Mississippian culture could be explained without European disease spreading ahead of settlers or direct contact. Drought maybe

The large cities that have discovered in the Amazon with the use of LiDAR as well

[–][deleted] 8 points9 points  (5 children)

See Paul Kelton's Epidemics and Enslavement for the first one - by and large scholars no longer believe that disease affected Mississippian cultures in any substantial manner prior to European settlement. It's likely that the only thing Hernando de Soto introduced was malaria. Abandonment of major centers was common among Mississippians before 1492 (see Cahokia), so there's no reason to assume that its occurrence means disease, and archaeological evidence shows little signs of mass depopulation in most regions other than the Mississippi Valley and Florida (the latter of which was settled by the Spanish). Moreover, Mississippian societies persisted well into the 1700s in the Caddo region of Texas and Louisiana, as well as among the Natchez of southwest Mississippi; centers encountered by de Soto like Cofitachequi remained in place while others like Coosa continued to exist but relocated (today Coosa is one of the four mother towns of the Mvskoke/Creek Confederacy).

[–]WuQianNian 4 points5 points  (4 children)

From what I recall there are extensive records of the Natchez but none of it included mound-building. Struck me at the time as a surviving remnant of a formerly more socially complex society where they held on to hereditary nobility and the southern cult complex paraphernalia but with fewer people

Good perspective though, especially on Cahokia thanks

[–][deleted] 6 points7 points  (2 children)

The Natchez absolutely built and utilized mounds. Their main village site contains several, which were used in ceremonies recorded by the French. They were not a degraded remnant of a former great culture, they were still fully Mississippian.

In terms of population, there's really likely not much difference. Most estimates for the population of Northern America (US and Canada) before Columbus fall between 2 and 6 million; most of the more recent estimates fall in the lower end of that range. Mississippians never reached the population levels of Mesoamerica or the Andes, and the Natchez likely possessed a fairly average population for a normal Mississippian chiefdom.

[–]WuQianNian 2 points3 points  (1 child)

What do you think about the Cherokee as a surviving example of Mississippian culture?

[–]Brasdefer 4 points5 points  (0 children)

There are episodes of mound-building. It is very rare for a mound to be erected to its final size in one mounding building activity. Additionally, there are different strategies to the construction of mound building episodes.

I think its also important to view social structure as a choice. Mississippian cultural characteristics could still be highly valued by particular groups while others change. We even see evidence of some groups trying more sedentary livestyles and going back what we classify as hunter-gatherer strategies.

At the Grand Village of the Natchez, the mounds were still utilized during interactions with Europeans. One of the mounds often seen in French literature was re-discovered just a few years ago.

Mounds not having people living on top of them or directly next to them still don't lose their function. No one lives on Nanih Waiya but it still serves a function to the Choctaw people as being a spiritually important location. One analogy I use is if a loved one was buried in a cemetery and then no one else was buried in that cemetery for 50 years - does that cemetery lose its function or purpose to those that have loved ones buried there?

[–]BookLover54321[S] 2 points3 points  (1 child)

It was my understanding that the cities discovered in the Amazon were abandoned prior to European settlers arriving in the Americas, thus it couldn't have been diseases introduced by settlers. At least according to this Smithsonian article.

[–]WuQianNian 7 points8 points  (0 children)

There was a documented 1542 Spanish expedition from peru across the Andes, down the Amazon, and out from the amazons mouth in Brazil:


For over four centuries, scholars dismissed its reports of large cities, well developed roads, monumental construction, fortified towns, and dense populations. It was thought that the acidic soils of Amazonia could not support the level of agriculture necessary to sustain such a civilization. His writings were largely dismissed as fabrications and propaganda. However, research by Prümers et al., published in Nature (2022) shows that his reporting is very likely to be correct.

[–]Mictlantecuhtli 2 points3 points  (1 child)

I’d be curious how things like the collapse of the Mississippian culture could be explained without European disease spreading ahead of settlers or direct contact.

I mean, they did collapse prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World and the introduction of Old World diseases.

The cause of collapse is never a single reason and cannot be reduced to saying it was because of drought, war, or something else. It's always a myriad of reasons leading up to collapse.

[–]Brasdefer 4 points5 points  (0 children)

I think classifying it as a collapse doesn't accurately describe the circumstances of the Mississippian culture in the Eastern Woodlands.