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Grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars/ mountain lions,bobcats, wolverines, lynx, foxes, fishers and martens are the suite of carnivores that originally inhabited North America after the Pleistocene extinctions. This site invites research, commentary, point/counterpoint on that suite of native animals (predator and prey) that inhabited The Americas circa 1500-at the initial point of European exploration and subsequent colonization. Landscape ecology, journal accounts of explorers and frontiersmen, genetic evaluations of museum animals, peer reviewed 20th and 21st century research on various aspects of our "Wild America" as well as subjective commentary from expert and layman alike. All of the above being revealed and discussed with the underlying goal of one day seeing our Continent rewilded.....Where big enough swaths of open space exist with connective corridors to other large forest, meadow, mountain, valley, prairie, desert and chaparral wildlands.....Thereby enabling all of our historic fauna, including man, to live in a sustainable and healthy environment. - Blogger Rick

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Yesterdays Post that discussed and revealed John Lawson's AD 1700 first hand account and writings about the BEASTS OF CAROLINA generated a lively, informative and robust exchange of ideas between Ecologist and Environmental Activist, George Wuerthner.............As many of you know, George is second to none in his knowledge of natural systems, rewilding, the benefits of trophic carnivores, amongst a host of other wildlife and wildlands issues...........George challenged my repeating what the majority of ecological historians postulate about the pre-Clumbian indigenous population levels of what today is the USA and about how most of these "experts" are adamant that european diseases like smallpox eradicted up to 90% of those people...................George makes the case via a series of emails(below) that indigenous populations likely were relatively small(perhaps 1-4 million in the now 50 states and not the 50 to 100 million that many historians put forth..............All of this discussion centering around what kind of human density would allow for perhaps 30-50 million Bison, and several hundred thousand Wolves, Pumas, Black and Grizzly Bears at the time of European contact, circa AD 1500 in pre-Columbian America.......................You can scroll to the bottom of this chain for a chronological read of our exchange or go top down if you so prefer.................My thanks to George Wuerthner for his consistent contributions to both the ecological health of the USA and this Blog

Ecologist photographer, author, and activist, George Wuerthner has published more than thirty books on America’s wild places. His books include Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy and Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation. Wuerthner has served on the boards of several regional and national conservation organizations, and lives in Helena, Montana.
From: Meril, Rick
Sent: Monday, March 21, 2016 5:30 PM
To: 'George Wuerthner'
Subject: RE: The Black plague took some 100 years to repopulate from a 20 to 40% killing event

Agreed that the lower 1 to 3.5 million figure seems more logical…………….

George, as you say, many other debilitating factors at play for the Indians as we Europeans went on a killing spree to eliminate them east of the Mississippi by the close
Of the Revolutionary war, circa AD1800(300 year elimination event from the dawn of European colonization, circa AD 1500………………..and a "snap of the fingers" west of the Mississippi elimination
Of the indigenous population in a scant 90 years(1800-1890 as the Sioux and Apache major conflicts came to a close)

From: George Wuerthner []
Sent: Monday, March 21, 2016 5:26 PM
To: Meril, Rick
Subject: Re: The Black plague took some 100 years to repopulate from a 20 to 40% killing event

There you go. If indians suffered a 50% decline within a hundred or so years their populations should be back to something approaching the pre disease of course a whole lot of other factors affected that but even if there was only a 50% decline you would still see a lot more evidence of Indian effects on the land if the populations were as high as some suggest ie let's say there were a hundred million and some report 50 million Indians would still have a big impact if there were that many that's why I go with the low figures again thinking about this like predators it would be hard to imagine even 4 million wolves in North America could been supported by the population of prey


On Mar 21, 2016 5:19 PM, "Meril, Rick" <> wrote:
The Black Death reached England in August 1348. It first appeared in Dorset and had spread to London by November. It reached Norwich by January 1349, Dublin by the summer, and Edinburgh early in 1350.

In the next eighteen months, between around 20 and 40 percent of the English population died.Heavily populated areas suffered worst. Half the monks of Westminster Abbey, for example, died. Whereas the normal number of wills registered in London each year was about twenty (only rich men made wills,) in 1348-9 the number was over 370.

Burying plague victims at Tournai
The psychological impact of this first outbreak of plague was immense, but its immediate economic consequences were less drastic than might be expected.
The initial outbreak seems to have killed largely adult victims, and its first effect was to reduce the shortage of land and food.
However, although the plague disappeared in 1350, it returned in 1361 in what was known as "The Pestilence of the Children." This outbreak killed the young disproportionately since they did not have the acquired immunity of those who had lived through 1348-50. Further outbreaks hit in 1368-9, 1374-5 and 1378.
The subsequent outbreaks reduced the population of England by half, and did not begin to recover until after 1450.

From: George Wuerthner []
Sent: Monday, March 21, 2016 5:09 PM
To: Meril, Rick
Subject: Re: 3.5 million is this gentleman's projection in north america

Yes I have read his paper. And others have taken his estimate for all of the  New World and used that number for North America. Charles Mann, for instance, in 1491 (if I remember correctly) uses the 100 million number. I just watched a movie a few weeks ago that also used that number. 

3.8 for all of North America seems within reason with some assumptions. But again this is nothing more than a guess. And again there are so many assumptions in these numbers about the decline. As I suggested, most attribute decline to disease--which I definitely think was an issue--but there are many other plausible explanations for observations. I.e. abandoned villages, and so forth that the "disease' proponents use. 

I do not think the marks of humans would have vanished so quickly if there were millions upon millions of Indians. And the second question is how rapidly would they repopulate the continent even after a die off. I.e. how long does it take for a die off of several million to recover to pre die off numbers? For instance, the doubling time for a population growing at just 2% a year is 35 years. So let's assume that half of NA indians did die of disease, in 35 years, they would be back to the original number--all other things being equal. I realize that there were other factors at work, but you get my point. Even if there were around 4 million Indians in NA and half died, you would be back up to 4 million in a relatively short time--if indeed, there were that many people here

From: Meril, Rick
Sent: Monday, March 21, 2016 4:35 PM
To: 'George Wuerthner'
Subject: 3.5 million is this gentleman's projection in north america

The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the
Americas in 1492
William M. Denevan
Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706
Abstract. The myth persists that in 1492 the Americas were a sparsely populated wilderness, -a world of barely perceptible human disturbance.- There is substantial evidence, however, that the Native American landscape of the early sixteenth century was a humanized landscape almost everywhere. Populations were large. Forest composition had been modified, grasslands had been created, wildlife disrupted, and erosion was severe in places. Earthworks, roads, fields, and settlements were ubiquitous. With Indian depopulation in the wake of Old World disease, the environment recovered in many areas. A good argument can be made that the human presence was less visible in 1750 than it was in 1492.

Indian Numbers
The size of the native population at contact is critical to our argument. The prevailing position, a recent one, is that the Americas were well-populated rather than relatively empty lands in 1492. In the words of the sixteenth-century Spanish priest, Bartolomé de las Casas, who knew the Indies well:
All that has been discovered up to the year forty-nine 115491 is full of people, like a hive of bees, so that it seems as though God had placed all, or the greater part of the entire human race in these countries (Las Casas, in MacNutt 1909, 314).

I have recently suggested a New World total of 53.9 million (Denevan 1992, xxvii). This divides into 3.8 million for North America, 17.2 million for Mexico, 5.6 million for Central America, 3.0 million for the Caribbean, 15.7 million for the Andes, and 8.6 million for lowland South America. These figures are based on my judgment as to the most reasonable recent tribal and regional estimates. Accepting a margin of error of about 20 percent, the New World population would lie between 43-65 million.

 Future regional revisions are likely to maintain the hemispheric total within this range. Other recent estimates, none based on totaling regional figures, include 43 million by Whitmore (1991, 483), 40 million by Lord and Burke (1991), 40-50 million by Cowley (1991), and 80 million for just Latin America by Schwerin (1991, 40). In any event, a population between 40-80 million is sufficient to dispel any notion of "empty lands." Moreover, the native impact on the landscape of 1492 reflected not only the population then but the cumulative effects of z growing population over the previous 15,000 years or more.

European entry into the New World abruptly reversed this trend. The decline of native American populations was rapid and severe, probably the greatest demographic disaster eve; (Lovell, this volume). Old World diseases were the primary killer. In many regions, particularly the tropical lowlands, populations fell by 90 percent or more in the first century after the contact. Indian populations (estimated) declined Hispaniola from 1 million in 1492 to a few hundred 50 years later, or by more than 99 percent in Peru from 9 million in 1520 to 670,000 in 1620 (92 percent); in the Basin of Mexico from 1.6 million in 1519 to 180,000 in 107 (89 percent); and in North America from 3.8 million in 1492 to 1 million in 1800 (74 percent).

 An overall drop from 53.9 million in 1492 to 5.6 million in 1650 amounts to an 89 percent reduction (Denevan 1992, xvii-xxix). The human landscape was affected accordingly, although there is not always a direct relationship between population density and human impact (Whitmore, et al. 1990, 37).


From: Meril, Rick
Sent: Monday, March 21, 2016 2:30 PM
To: 'George Wuerthner'
Subject: FW: indian density in what is now mainland USA

George…………….see pages 40-42 on the attachment………………..In 1890, low point of Native Americans based on some
Type census stated 250,000……………..High point pre European colonization estimated between a low of 1million to a high of 10,000,000.

This paper estimates the lower figure, a 4 to 1 rather than a 40 to 1 low to high level

From: Meril, Rick
Sent: Monday, March 21, 2016 12:39 PM
To: Meril, Rick
Subject: indian density

From: George Wuerthner <>
Date: March 21, 2016 at 11:46:54 AM PDT
To: "Meril, Rick" <>
Subject: Re: estimates of Indians may be off


Abandoned villages? Yes, because they were living on crops. They only got 2-3 crops before soils were exhausted and they had to move on to a new location. Even sometimes exhausting wood supplies--remember you are carrying all this wood on your back. You also hunt out the local deer, etc. How far are you going to carry firewood? How far are you going to carry a deer?  Slash and burn ag depends on continuous movement--every few years and guess what you have "abandoned" villages. 

 So how many of those "abandoned" villages represented the natural process of exhausting local supplies of wood, game, and ag lands before moving to a new location? People can over consume especially when they have no way to increase their production. 

Think about how many abandoned villages would be evident if you had to up and move every 3-4 years. 

Then there were regular wars between tribes. Villages were abandoned just as we have empty zones around the world today on the battle lines between warring countries. Go to the old border between EAst and West Germany  (which is now a big national park) because the villages there were abandoned. Now suppose you did not know the history and you came upon those villages--ah, the explanation must be they were wiped out by disease--if you wanted to use that excuse. 

Well maybe and maybe not. These historians act like Indians were somehow different than all other humans. Heck very likely our ancestors, including Indians, helped to wipe out Neanderthals.  People are continuously at war and in the pre-European days, tribal conflicts often led to abandoned villages. 

Starvation was common as well. One harsh winter and entire villages could be depopulated, and/or so weak that adjacent tribes would push them into other territories. there is the winter of 1816 when summer did not come. Many New Englanders almost starved, but by then we had sailing ships, etc. so food could be moved. And then were are diseases that could affect food staples--a disease that wipes out deer for a few years or causes your corn crop to fail. Just like the potato famine in Ireland. What this never happened in North America? 

The problem is that since there is no written history, people make up stories that fits their preexisting narrative. The narrative is that there had to be a lot of Indians, and the Europeans were nasty folks who came and killed off all the Indians to take their lands. The second narrative is that Indians were not primitive and "managed" everything--somehow doing this with no technology to speak of--and all of NA was one big farmed landscape. Well then you have to have large human populations if you are going to affect everything as your story goes, so you have to figure out how large numbers of Indians were around for a long time, but disappeared suddenly--the simple answer is disease. 

 Look at Europe where we have good histories. There were famines all the time that continuously that led to major population declines. One cold spring, crops failed, and people starved in mass. 

These environmental historians are selective in their causes of population decline and abandonment because they want to make it sound like Indian populations were much higher. 

But you have to think about it from an ecological perspective, and Indian people (as all low technology people) had natural limits on their populations. And they often fluctuated significantly due to events that today would seem inconsequential. For instance, I bet if the same drought now hitting California today happened 500 years ago, you would have seen a major population decline in Indians just as you would see in other wildlife. Almost all of the food resources except for food from the sea would be limited. People be dying from starvation, as well as wars between tribal units. 

It's just like wolf packs. If you have  a population decline in elk, wolf packs fight each other. The population of wolves in Yellowstone declined by 50%. If it were environmental historians, they would have said diseases were responsible (and I know there was some disease in Y'stone wolves too--but the population decline was mostly due to declining prey base). Wolves are a perfect metaphor for humans. 

Again, you cannot support high human populations for very long on primitive technology. Without beasts of burden, without the wheel, without metal, without water and wind power, without fishing nets, in fact, until recently without even the bow and arrow. That is the question these people asserting such high human numbers must answer. How do you sustain high numbers without anything other than basic resource exploitive methods and equipment. You can't. Even the addition of metal knives, and axes greatly increased the ability of tribes to exploit their environment. Add in horses, and guns, and wow you have a regular population explosion. 

On Mon, Mar 21, 2016 at 10:33 AM, Meril, Rick <> wrote:
thanks George.........and the Hawaiians, decimate by the Pox?????????

We see how the Indians were decimated by alcohol, their systems even today intolerant of "drink",,,,,,,,

Do not the remaining hunter/gatherer tribes in the Amazon get medical assistance........I have seen this written about????

Virtually every diary account of the colonial period mentions abandoned east coast Indian villages upon colonists coming off the boats and stepping onto North American land for the first time.........

Your points about the plains Indians dragging bison without horses makes sense........Horses amongst the tribes during the mid 1500's after Spanish let many loose?????

population explosion west of mississippi as this occurred?

Eastern woodland Indians had enough "hands" to bring in deer to villages??


From: George Wuerthner []
Sent: Monday, March 21, 2016 10:07 AM
To: Meril, Rick
Subject: Re: estimates of Indians may be off

What they do is come up with an estimate made out of the blue, then they say if there were 100  million (or whatever the number is) then there had to be a 90% reduction. 

Disease no doubt did affect some tribes.i could see up to a 50% reduction of some tribes in the worse cases. But I'm willing to bet it was less in many instance. 

 I'm not saying it didn't occur. But more importantly was how it may have affected their competitive fitness. I.e. a tribe with some dying people could not defend themselves against other tribes or they might miss an important seasonal food concentration, and starved. 

We are not seeing 90% die off of Indians in the Amazon, etc. today who have no greater resistance to disease than their forebearers centuries before. I am convinced these numbers are exaggerations. 

Keep in mind that most environmental historians do not understand ecology. They also have an agenda. They ignore the effects of changing climate which affected many tribes far more than diseases. For instance, major droughts on the Great Plains led to a depopulation of the region duet o a major decline in bison. The few tribes that survived on the plains migrated to the rivers like the Missouri and started to grow corn. 

or how about the Anazasi who abandoned all those cliff dwellings around 1100-1200 AD? No disease is a factor because this was before there were Europeans to blame for the population decline. But a major drought is likely the cause. 

These historians do not think ecologically. 


From: Meril, Rick
Sent: Monday, March 21, 2016 9:59 AM
To: 'George Wuerthner'
Subject: RE: estimates of Indians may be off

George………………good counterpoint and caution urged by you on this………………Interesting that Lawson himself cites that the Indian "head men" that he encountered on his journey all spoke of the fact that only only some 15% of their respective tribes were alive today(AD 1700) compared to just 3o years earlier,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,the majority taken by the Pox…………………..

Also described is the fact that the Indians were much cleaner and healthier,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,"tall and well built" than the typical European………………………The natives bathed daily, lean meat, fish and plant foods………………….

Why do you think so many Ecological historians subscribe to the larger pop. Estimates?(below)


From: George Wuerthner []
Sent: Monday, March 21, 2016 9:25 AM
To: Meril, Rick
Subject: estimates of Indians may be off


I read all the time those estimates that 90% of the Indians perished from disease. Be suspect of those estimates. They are based on nothing more than guesses. And the numbers don't really add up. I.e. if Indian populations were as high as this would suggest, we would have seen far more evidence of their activites on the landscape. Not to mention that there are ecological limits. Without wheels, beasts of burden, and the most primitive Ag how could you support such high numbers of people? 

If you look at the higher of the population estimates, they suggest there were more than twice as many Indians in NA than there were people in northern Europe at the same time (1300s). And this without iron, metal, wind mills, even fish nets, etc. Just doesn't add up. 

i think the reason for these high estimates are to try to suggest that Indians modified much of North America, thus were "important" and of course, some suggest that our modification of NA is OK because you know the Indians were modifying NA as well.

This is not to suggest that in the immediate area around a population center, there was not some modification of the landscape. But those modifications were modest. 

Think about something as simple as killing bison. Without horses and the wheel, how would you get all that meat back to a village? You could not. Thus Indians had to live in very sparse groups to be able to take advantage of seasonal food opportunities. Except perhaps for tribes living in coastal areas where fish, mussels, etc. were abundant, there is questions about how much population you could support. 

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