American Indian Population Recovery Following Smallpox Epidemics

Article appearing in American Anthropologist, Volume 93, Issue 1

  • Co-Author:
  • Jonathan Warren with Russel Thornton, Tim Miller
  • Publisher: JSTOR
  • Date: 1994

Scholars generally agree that American Indian populations were reduced substantially following European contact by a variety of Old World diseases. However, scholarly attention has been devoted almost exclusively to ascertaining mortality during smallpox and other disease episodes and its impact on population size, as typified in “working backwards” to ascertain earlier population size. American Indian populations were dynamic entities, and were constantly changing as members were born, died, or migrated, even if population size from one year to the next was relatively constant. The interaction of disease, mortality, and fertility as well as the age structure of mortality and resulting rates of population growth influenced changes in American Indian population size following experiences with any particular disease. These factors operated to produce either greater or lesser declines than simple mortality rates would suggest. This article presents simulations developed to understand changes in American Indian population size following hypothetical episodes of smallpox.