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The Thing Which Has Been

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

-Ecclesiastes 1:9

This year’s flu season is a bad one. Every year we go through this time of year, and the influenza virus travels through from person to person… and this year in the US, it has killed 53 children already. A mere droplet in the bucket compared to the 1918 flu season… one hundred years ago. Seems like ancient history, doesn’t it? Epidemics like that couldn’t happen again, could they? We’ve had several panics in recent decades: swine flu, bird flu, Ebola… but nothing has come of them.

Let me take you back in time with me to another world, another place. To a thriving city, several of them, in fact, which died in terror and disease. Millions of people, possibly, although estimates are uncertain in the face of so little evidence, and decimated is the wrong word. Decimation was the killing of one-tenth of the population por les encourages les autres. A mere one-tenth. When the opposite happens and ninety percent die, civilizations vanish from the face of the earth and all that are left are legends of horrible curses and places that no human will venture lest they also be cursed and afflicted. I’ve been reading about epidemics since I was a girl, so when I came across The Lost City of the Monkey God, I found it an interesting book, although the sources of the plague that laid the cities of Mosquitia low are purely speculative: there is no record remaining, save only stone, of the thousands, perhaps millions of people who lived and perished there.

It’s hardly the first time I’ve contemplated diving off ancient platforms for story-building exercises. A lecture I attended on the Maya some five years ago caught my attention, as well. The long-gone civilizations of the American jungle are still poorly understood, and if you are writing science fiction, give a great place to start for aliens. It’s nothing new: first contact stories of the humans meeting might well be told again if we ever meet another species. And I doubt such a xeno-diverse encounter would do any better than those which took place Homo sapiens to Homo sapiens.

Stories born of tragedy are an effort to understand that pain. To come to grips with what happened. Preston’s book lays the blame squarely on the Europeans who may have brought disease to kill the innocent cities in the jungle he was trying to find along with the team he was writing for. The narrative of our time is ‘white guilt’ whether or not that story is fact or fiction. We are convinced it was all our fault, even in the face of the facts. The explorers who came from Europe to the Americas didn’t understand germ theory. They or their ancestors had been scourged and devoured by the epidemics of plague and smallpox, which trace their roots over the Silk Roads into Asia. Epidemics feel no guilt, they simply exist to provide microscopic organisms a method of reproduction and conveyance from one area to another. Some of those parasitic pathogens are too efficient a killer, and burn themselves out of existence by killing 90% of their hosts. Others, like influenza, adapt constantly and flow through the human population causing misery but little death relative to the amount of microorganisms involved.

The plague? Still exists. The White Death, that romantic name given to the consumption of bodies by tuberculosis? Poised for a comeback as it develops multi-drug resistance to the weapons deployed against it. Smallpox? in theory, eradicated, but rumors still whisper of samples hidden in labs that could possibly be… mislaid, and thus emerge again onto an unsuspecting world. The next evolution of an epidemic? Might be from a direction we just don’t expect.

And this makes it easy to write horror, because it’s horrible to contemplate. But we know from history and archaeology that it’s not a new story. There’s nothing original about John Ringo’s Last Centurion, but I’ll still tell you to go read it. It’s awkward, and not entirely a novel, but it’s riveting and chilling and very very truthy. As a plot, it’s been done time and again, because it’s all too relevant and possible.

The ending of the Lost City of the Monkey God drew hasty conclusions from scant fieldwork, and didn’t draw any at all from the disease that struck nearly all of the team that ventured into the jungle to do that work with the city they found through use of modern technology. I think there is far more to that story, but also, there is much there to be speculated about into fiction, for someone who wasn’t afraid to tell an old, old story in a new and fresh way. What if there were more than one cache of statues left? What if it wasn’t intended to propitiate angry gods? What if the leshmaniasis which disfigures so horribly played a role? What it…

This is how we humans deal with unimaginable tragedy. We make stories about it. Legends spring up from the mists of the forgotten jungle that twines around vainglorious stone temples that were meant to endure eternally. What once was, will be. There is nothing new under the sun.

60 Comments
  1. c4c

    February 3, 2018
  2. Second attempt, of course:

    My wife’s mother’s family had a good farm and prospered – until the fever hit. It was either malaria or yellow fever, and the only treatment was quinine and Georgia Bark – the bark of a tree found in Georgia and Florida that’s related to the plant that’s the source of quinine. It was bad enough that entire families moved away, their’s included.

    You won’t find mention of that in a history book. It only shows up in property sales, tax auctions, foreclosures, and cemeteries. It wasn’t even considered a major outbreak. For that you have to look at events like Savannah in the early 19th Century, where so many died that there is said to have been a tunnel used to carry the dead from the hospital lest it throw the city into a panic. I doubt the outbreak that caused my grandmother’s family to move out was an isolated instance because if it had been unusual, it would have been noteworthy.

    We don’t think about such things in the US, but, there it is. Such are the benefits of sanitation, chlorination, vaccinations, and modern medicine. Quinine still works against malaria, but I don’t know if it really did anything for yellow fever (since it involved a virus). As to Georgia Bark, in the 20th Century some researchers tested it for quinine. They found it had none at all.

    February 3, 2018
    • When I was doing a summer program for teens in NH, we visited the local cemetery and I showed them grave after grave of people who had all died in the same year, mostly the same month. Yellow Fever epidemic. It used to be an annual scourge every summer, and a few years (1890s, I’d have to look up the exact date) a full-fledged epidemic that got all the way up into New England.

      February 3, 2018
      • TRX #

        Years ago I drove my Dad to the small town in Georgia where he was born. We did the cemetary crawl. The town had been a reasonably going place when Dad was a boy during the Depression. Population in 1993: 23

        I wandered about the cemetaries, noting hundreds of identical headstones marked US ARMY, and all with the same date of death, in the summer of 1943.

        Essentially, the entire adult male population of that town died in the same battle, somewhere in a foreign country. At least, not enough came back for the town to remain viable.

        When you’re standing in a ghost town looking at a cemetary like that, history doesn’t seem so abstract any more.

        February 3, 2018
      • My maternal Grandfather was the caretaker for a small Presbyterian church’s graveyard and he lived in a house no more than 100 feet from that graveyard. From the time I was born until the age of 8, I either lived in that house, was babysat by my Grandmother in that house or visited it and while there the graveyard was my playground and I learned early about how diseases do not give a rats ass about class, race, sex or whatever. You see I asked my Grandfather why there was so many headstones and monuments (The rich had huge monuments set over their plots) all clustered in the same years. You see I was used to seeing a couple of burials every few months or so, and all these old ones didn’t match what I was seeing. He pulled me over to the clusters that had 1918 on them and told me about the Spanish Flu (he was a young boy then) and then explained about how all those clusters came from local epidemics from disease. This was in the early/mid 70’s and it had an impact on my that basically but me out of step thought wise with my peer group, well a bigger one anyway since I skipped the first 2 grades and Kindergarten when I was 5 and was already out of step since they were fingerprainting while I was doing 3rd grade science and math.

        February 3, 2018
        • “This is how we humans deal with ….. ….. We make stories about it.” I had a turn-away-from-this-phrase moment, thinking oh that’s what people say, and then the realization hit that that is what I did.

          Shameful admission here… I don’t write sci fi/fantasy … And I used a pseudonym on my book …. but I wrote a murder mystery/sweet romance with a little boy who had cancer as a central character. And two people who knew me fifteen years ago when my son had cancer* read the book, and came to me crying and saying, “Is that what it was like?” And I initially thought they were silly and I would say of course no one had tried to murder my son in the hospital. But they were more right about what I had done than I was.

          *he is fine

          February 3, 2018
          • I’m glad.

            February 3, 2018
  3. I’ve been talking about TB and the Black Death for years. TB is all over America, in its drug resistant form. Thanks to 20 years of not screening immigrants. Possibly more, I’m not sure.

    The Black Death is firmly rooted in the Southwest, and shows no signs of going away. There are new cases every year of people getting it after sleeping in the desert, catching it from their dog, what have you. Fleas, you know. Plague fleas, specifically. They live there.

    Guess who sleeps in the desert, then gets shipped all over the USA by air after spending two weeks crammed into a dormitory? Yep. Illegal immigrants. The USA could not have designed a better system to deliberately spread TB and Plague unless they gave the people injections. In the event of an outbreak of Pneumonic Plague, it would be everywhere.

    February 3, 2018
    • TRX #

      California: “We will totally jack your Constitutional rights as we defend our plants from imported disease, but we enthusiastically accept human-born disease!”

      February 3, 2018
      • well, that’s likely related to something I’ve blogged about before: the movement to reduce if not eliminate the human population.

        February 3, 2018
        • Draven #

          yeah, yet another… problem CA is headed for.

          February 3, 2018
      • Holly #

        Yet if you’re a legal immigrant, applying for a green card, you’re tested for TB. And if you had the vaccine, you have to get a chest x-ray, because the FDA decided that vaccine isn’t good enough or something. Paid for by you, of course.

        And liberal people wonder why legals resent illegals.

        February 3, 2018
        • And depending on where you are from, a skin test shows a false positive. Same problem if you are from parts of Georgia and Alabama in the US.

          February 3, 2018
          • Arizona one of them? I had one more than forty years ago that was positive – then the one ~5 years ago was negative (when I was being checked before going on Humira).

            I’ve always wondered whether I had scratched in my sleep, or whether the carrier back then was something that triggered an allergic reaction.

            February 3, 2018
          • The reason they don’t rely on the vaccine is that if you contract TB before it is administered then it doesn’t work and that person can be infectious and as someone said the skin test can be a false positive and that is why the chest x-ray on them. The reason I know this is that I married a girl in the Philippines and had to go through this when she came here. I had the vaccine and was safe while stationed there, she had already contracted the disease according to the skin test so they did a chest x-ray to confirm, same for my step son. Once the X-ray’s confirmed it they had to go onto a heavy treatment plan because he was infectious still before they got their visa’s.

            February 3, 2018
        • I had to be tested for TB as part of my procedure to immigrate to Australia. Medical tests, paid for by you, is part of immigration, full stop. I don’t mind going through it, because I understand why it’s necessary.

          And yes, I’m quite cranky about the fact that illegals get everything handed to them, and they still bitch and moan about ‘not getting enough’ or ‘there are too many laws.’

          February 4, 2018
  4. Holly #

    Not-Little-Brother and I keep tossing around the idea of a novel based on antibiotic resistance.
    Problem one: he’s writing his dissertation.
    Problem two: we’re rather worried by the time problem one is dealt with, it won’t be fiction anymore.

    February 3, 2018
    • Probably not, given the rate at which resistance develops. Have you seen the three-foot petri dish resistance experiment?

      February 3, 2018
    • I recall hearing how vancomycin was the “antibiotic of last resort” when (almost?) everything else fails/failed. And then thinking, “And if that one is resisted, what then?” That new antibiotics are all but unknown (not enough monetary payoff for the investment).. oh crud.

      February 3, 2018
      • There has been a lot of promising research into non-antibiotic treatments. (Some of them are very cool—I recall reading about one that basically exploded the virus it targeted and nothing else.)

        February 4, 2018
  5. Back before Discover magazine plunged completely off the deep end, there was a fascinating article suggesting that a hanta variant, not European diseases, killed many of the natives around the Valley of Mexico in 1821-25, and in the Yucatan at the same time. The symptoms described in codices and other records matched hanta, and there is a long history of hanta-related viri in the Americas. (Article from 2005-2007 ish?)

    I’m reluctant to ascribe to Europeans what can be found in local vector pools.

    February 3, 2018
    • I strongly suspect that although yes, smallpox was a novel viral vector, it was not the only one in the Americas before Europeans got here. There’s growing evidence that when the exploration wave got this far, what they found was the aftermath of an epidemic already. Hemorrhagic fevers are nasty, and frequently have 90% or greater lethality.

      February 3, 2018
    • Aha! I was intrigued enough to go looking and found a paper tying hanta, smallpox, and a massive drought to the death toll in the 1500s in Central America. http://www.medigraphic.com/pdfs/revbio/bio-2002/bio024h.pdf

      February 3, 2018
  6. lfox328 #

    Thank you all – I’m going to find a way to include this in a story very soon.

    February 3, 2018
    • If you need more research materials, let me know 😉

      February 3, 2018
  7. …the 1918 flu season… one hundred years ago. Seems like ancient history, doesn’t it?

    Perhaps, but I recall my grandmother talking of it, and yes, she lived through it — old enough to have at least some idea of what was happening — not all of those around her did.

    February 3, 2018
    • My grandmother was only five in 1918, but she had a story about the flu epidemic, too. A young soldier returned home with the flu, and evidently the local families (in a somewhat isolated homesteading community in the Oregon Coast Range) had already heard about the epidemic. They isolated the flu victim in an empty house and three men, including Grandma’s father, my great-grandfather, cared for him until he died. Their families brought food and supplies and left them on the porch so they wouldn’t be exposed. Grandma didn’t think that any of the three caregivers got sick, and evidently nobody else local came down with the flu, either.

      February 3, 2018
      • Oh, and my avatar picture is my grandmother when she was fifteen — she had just won a turkey shoot, shooting against the men of the community.

        February 3, 2018
      • Second attempt again:

        My grandfather who had it was between 17 and 19, depending when he contracted it. What he told about the spread was generic enough that it could be rumor: came with the soldiers from Europe. He also contracted the Hong Kong Flu, and characterized that one as almost as bad as the Spanish Flu. The Spanish Flu remained the worst he ever experienced.

        He didn’t go into the detail about the spread. Apparently, in his neck of the woods, it was about like any other flu: One day it seemed to be there and for a while it seemed that someone or other was getting it. Nor did he have stories about the deaths, but he was from the era that death from illness wasn’t uncommon.

        Hmm … just thought of something. I haven’t seen a large number of tombstones with the year 1918. I tried to look for regional death rates, but all I found was the assumption that there were more rural deaths than were reported. But what if there weren’t? What if, for some reason, there were less regional flu deaths per capita? I don’t know this for a fact, and don’t know if the virus maybe mutated or if there was more than one influenza making the rounds and all were called the Spanish Flu. That said, I grew up beside a graveyard and one of my grandmothers used to take me through it and tell me about those buried there, and other visitors did likewise, and while they talked about a family who died in a typhus or typhoid epidemic, there was no talk about Spanish Flu deaths.

        Maybe it’s a false trail, but if it’s not, it might tell something significant about the outbreak.

        February 3, 2018
        • TRX #

          Y’know, back then the legal formalities of death weren’t like they are today, and what there was, would have been in occasional urban areas.

          Suddenly, I’m deeply suspicious of a lot of the figures the epidemologists have been tossing around.

          Someone prowling the cemetaries and recording the death dates would be a lot more solid data than records from a handful of hospitals and city morgues.

          February 3, 2018
        • Luke #

          Last I heard, researchers had been cracking open caskets of those killed by the Spanish Flu to try to recover the DNA from the viral package, to see what made that strain so deadly.
          They’d reached the conclusion that the strain wasn’t significantly more deadly than many other strains, UNLESS you were already infected with TB.

          Of course, this was a decade or more ago. It’s been a good while since I’ve had the leisure time to obsess over random topics. There may well be more and better information available now.

          February 3, 2018
        • One of the theories going around is that the reason this flu was so particularly deadly is that it was the body’s overreaction (the cytokine storm) from having a previous variant. If that is the case, it would explain why it killed so many of a particular age range, while those younger could be explained as the “normal” toll from an influenza epidemic that was so brutal that secondary infections were rife.

          February 4, 2018
      • Been reading the “what they did” stuff back then… my main take-away is “oh my gosh, were they FREAKING TRYING TO KILL EVERYONE?!?!”

        Just a FEW cities taking sane steps like your relatives did would’ve saved so dang many….

        ****

        Somewhat related, local hospitals are having kittens, because it turns out that in several of them, whatever genius was involved in designing made it so that there are not isolated air systems.

        So folks go into the ER for their freebie flu treatment, and that gets pumped into a system full of folks who are hospitalized.

        Speaking of “are they trying to kill people.”

        February 3, 2018
        • Possible. The norm here is for individual heating and air for hospital rooms. ER air, like the other hospital “offices” are common air, so that does circulate among common rooms. However, this does mean the ER and waiting area probably do circulate air. Locally the ER and hospitals are full of flu cases, and they’re recommending staying away unless absolutely necessary.

          February 4, 2018
          • They actually shut down one or two hospital ERs and are pushing them to the independent ER centers.

            February 4, 2018
    • I had two great-aunts on Dad’s side who were cotton-patch kin. Their parents had known Grandfather’s parents, and when the girls’ parents and siblings and others died in the 1918 influenza, Dad’s family took them in, no questions asked, and raised them as their own daughters.

      The first influenza case in Amarillo that I can confirm was a minister of an Armenian church who had come up from Houston to check on some people. Not certain if he was the local patient zero or just the first to turn up in county records.

      February 3, 2018
    • My great aunt Nan survived it as a teenager. She wrote in a brief memoir, about how she was just barely well enough to go downstairs and sit in the hallway of the house that the family lived in (Reading, England) and listen to the victory celebrations on Armistice Day. Her mother (my great-grandmother Alice, whom certain elderly friends and acquaintances have claimed that I resemble in appearance, and possibly in character) was working as a volunteer nurse in a local influenza emergency hospital set up in Reading. Great-Granny Alice had trained as a nurse, back in the 1880s, when it wasn’t the good thing for ladies of good family to do, according to family legend – and so she went forth and volunteered for war/emergency service.
      I really wish now that I had sat down and interviewed Nan – she was the last survivor of her generation, and would have had fascinating stories to tell…

      February 3, 2018
    • Mike #

      I lived in a small village on Bristol Bay in Alaska, there was a large “Eskimo” cemetery. It was in a largely deserted/abandoned part of town, the wooden crosses were largely fallen down and illegible. I did not think about it much because I knew that disease had killed large percentages of the native populations at various times in history. Then I found a history of the village written in the early ’70s by a high school senior and the high school teacher, to my surprise I found that a Navy hospital ship spent a year in the bay in front of the village and that 90% of the community had died of the Spanish Flu 1917-1918. The community had gone from over 2000 to approximately 200. In less than two years. Currently there are approximately 50 year round residents and they are having difficulty keeping enough students to keep the school open. Once the school closes, the community will rapidly die.

      February 3, 2018
    • E. Hinkle #

      My father was born in 1928, and he heard stories from his older relations that he shared with me. Things like walking down the street in town and seeing coffins and bodies laying outside the homes waiting for the corpse-collectors to come by, every building with at least one and more often two or three of them.

      That and a story that sounds like an urban legend. A man calls the hospital and says that his wife has the influenza, but his kids and he are fine so can the doctors come get her? What with one thing and another it takes around an hour to get to the house. And when they do the doctors find the wife dead and the kids dead from influenza and the husband dying. There were appparently a lot of those stories going around back then.

      February 4, 2018
  8. Dan Z #

    At one point I did some research, just for fun really, on the history of my hometown and was surprised to learn that during colonial times multiple attempts were made to settle the area before one finally succeeded. The first two or three attempts failed because the handful of families involved in those attempts all died of fever. (You would think after the first two waves of settlers all died that the area would have been written off as “cursed” or something, but no – they kept trying until people finally stopped dying. Must have been some really great farmland here.) It’s possible, maybe even likely, that first indication people in the main settlement had that something had gone wrong was when those families failed to show up for church services on Sunday.

    I imagine someone would have volunteered or been appointed to ride out to those remote farms and investigate. Those men likely would have no idea what to expect when they rode up to that first farm. Any livestock on the farm would have been, well, doing whatever livestock normally do, but the men’s shouted greetings would have received no answer from the farmhouse. At some point the men would have experienced that “oh-no moment” – perhaps there would be a motionless body on the ground near the house or the smell of death as the men approached the house – when they realized everyone on the farm was dead. The men would have known what to expect at the other farms after that. Would they have charged forward, I wonder, hoping they were in time to rescue any survivors? Or would they continued on with more of a grim determination because it was their duty to confirm what they already knew to be true?

    Good inspiration for a story there, right? Come to think of it – and a good example of local legends rising up from historical events – when I was a child there were people around town who claimed one of the apartment complexes on the edge of town was built on the site of an abandoned Colonial-era graveyard and some of the apartments were haunted by ghosts of early Colonists who had died of fever. My favorite version of the story involved a woman who screamed in fright when she saw one of the Colonial ghosts in her living room. The ghost, the story goes, stopped doing whatever chore she was working on and told the frightened woman “I don’t know what you’re so upset about – this our home too.” (Suspiciously modern English for a Colonial-era ghost, but no reason to let that get in the way of the story)

    February 3, 2018
    • When my mother’s mother’s family moved out, it was because they thought the fever was in the air. We see that the name malaria. But they didn’t seem to have the idea of an area as contaminated. I do know that my sharecropper grandparents always made sure they had screens on the windows because of mosquitoes and flies, so by the early 20th Century disease vectors were better understood.

      As to what people did then, it’s probably what rural people do now: They check on them. That’s what you do. One of the hardest things I ever did was when I came up on a burned out truck and peeked inside to see if there were bodies (there were none). What else are you going to do? In rural areas, you and your neighbors are the first responders.

      February 3, 2018
  9. I like Douglas Preston as a writer. I think he tells interesting and entertaining stories. I’ll probably check this one out at some point.

    But, ah…”In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy.” I’m not sure I buy into that statement. According to Wikipedia (yeah, yeah, but it comes with references) it’s been around since the 1930s. I know the Highway Patrol around here was using it in the early 2000s, we even tried one out on campus for awhile in 2010.

    February 3, 2018
    • Draven #

      lidar uses lasers and really can’t see through a tree canopy.

      February 3, 2018
      • That’s one of the things he explains, that it was something special they used to see through the trees and map the cities. I do think that there’s some (a lot) sensationalism going on in the book, but it’s still fascinating to read.

        February 3, 2018
    • Luke #

      Oh bugger.
      The guy might have listened to the explanations, but he clearly didn’t understand them.

      I was studying cartography in the early 90s, and the primary technology was mature then. (Although it wasn’t lidar, just a camera able to record specific portions of the
      microwave spectrum. You could somewhat accurately call it radar, but not lidar.)

      Being able to use it in the field, and in reasonable amount of time, required the secondary technology of computer processing power and portability to reach a certain point. That was the bottleneck.

      February 3, 2018
      • There is a technology that sends out a pulse of something and records its time to return with extreme accuracy. It was used to map the floor of the ocean (in the late 90’s?) after the discovery that the ocean water surface assumes the shape of what is below, in a very attenuated fashion. That is more than a camera and I assume it is what was used here as well.

        February 3, 2018
      • Looks like you’re right about him not understanding the explanation, although it looks like it’s possible he got the name of what he was using right– they figured out a way to make a topography map by taking the last signal that comes back, and feeding that into a program to get a decently accurate map.

        http://gisgeography.com/lidar-light-detection-and-ranging/

        Of course, that takes a really strong, really close signal to have a decent chance at getting a signal back from under thick vegetation…..

        February 3, 2018
    • Typo?

      Wiki has “Lidar originated in the early 1960s,” NOT 1930s

      February 4, 2018
      • Yup, 3 and 6 are next to each other on the keypad. Sorry about that.

        February 8, 2018
  10. Psychological horror is sometimes fun to watch (as a movie) and on a whim we watched one recently (DVD rental, because that’s much cheaper than the cinemas or buying something we don’t know) – it’s called 13 Sins and it was surprisingly enjoyable with a couple of neat twists and afterward we were still talking about it. I’ll warn that there’s some gore, but the real horror lies in the people.

    I’ll have to check out The Last Centurion; it sounds interesting.

    February 3, 2018
    • “The Last Centurion” was best described by John, as being “possessed” by Bandit Six…. It reads the same way really. As a written story it’s horrible in a literary sense. It strikes with a TRUTH though.

      February 3, 2018
      • Basara549 #

        Essentially, it’s written as if it’s a compilation of a series of blog/vlog posts a decade or so after the events being related, not intended to be compiled as a book. Less a diary, more like a free-form “this is the real story behind the version of the story you’ve heard through other parties”.
        Not quite a diary or memoir/recollection in the conventional sense, as it is so free-form that occasionally the “author” character goes off on tangents that only become clear why later on. It also retains certain typos that would show a less formal form of relating a story (for example, the repeated mis-spelling of the large city in SW Ohio, that is prone to errors from non-locals – and occasionally uniform manufacturers), which actually helps with immersion.

        February 5, 2018
  11. Mary #

    The irony is that more contact, earlier, would have let them survive the epidemics one by one and recover the population.

    February 3, 2018
  12. Basara549 #

    One of the big problems with many “Blame the Spanish” types are that there were many societal collapses with depopulation events well before the Spanish arrival. The classical Maya are one of the bigger examples that we actually know of. Environmental changes appear to have hit after the society had almost recovered from losing much of its southern reaches from a supervolcano eruption (https://www.earthmagazine.org/article/aag-eruption-el-salvadors-ilopango-explains-ad-536-cooling) large enough to have played a part in the problems in Justinian’s empire across the Atlantic.

    We’re only now (ironically from illegal clearing of the jungle and satellite study of the cleared areas) finding the remnants of a large group of cultures that lived, built massive structures, and disappeared, in the Amazon basin long before Columbus, that we only knew from mentions in Inca and related lore (and were thought to be mythical). Many notions of what the “unfarmable” land under the Amazon jungle could be used for, are having to be tossed into the trash.

    There’s even questions as to whether the Mississippian culture died from European disease, or if the diseases only managed to kill the survivors of a more local calamity that brought it down, as the dating doesn’t line up conclusively (many areas were showing collapse by 1525, years before there were more than a couple shipwrecked crews resorting to cannibalism in Texas). We do know that whole areas of what was once (and is now, again) farmland in the Ohio Valley had 150-200 year old forests where the lands had been fallow, and that it’s know better known that there were major population shifts in the Great Lakes area long before St. Augustine or Roanoke (the Iroquois pushed the tribes we now associate with the Midwest TO the Midwest (the Shawnee and other Algonquin tribes’ histories say they originated in areas from Delaware up into New England, before being displaced), who then in turn pushed former lakeside dwelling tribes like the Lakota towards the Plains). Those shifts alone probably took a population toll, as all the displaced tribes had to learn new lifestyles.

    There almost seems to be an ingrained reaction to “Blame Europeans” first, never mind the oral and archaeological timelines, and ignore that the Native Americans (like every other inhabited continent) were prone to internal conflict over resource areas as well as trade, going back hundreds (if not thousands) of years before Columbus. This of course requires ignoring the fact that many tribes in the 1600s and 1700s actually chose sides in conflicts between European colonists because of the opportunity to strike at their hated foes on the other side.
    (and that’s before finding out that there are apparently NA genetic markers in some of Iceland’s population, where Vikings must have brought back either brides, or children fathered in Vinland with local women, when they closed down their cross-Atlantic ventures – apparently they carried less diseases prone to infecting the locals than the Spanish).

    February 5, 2018
    • I’ve seen folks argue that the American Indian population must have been much, much larger, and had better transportation, because it’s required to explain the spread of disease to wipe them out.

      February 5, 2018

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