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Columbus’s Population Bomb

Washington, D.C.— Most people don’t realize that the holiday of Columbus Day, celebrated in many parts of the Americas this month, commemorates the most catastrophic population disaster in human history. Of the 50 to 80 million people living in the New World in 1492, scholars estimate that some 90 to 95 percent of them died during the first century after contact with the Europeans.

Columbus Day honors an event marked by pestilence, famine, war, and death, writes Mac Chapin, author of ”The Meaning of Columbus Day,” in the latest issue of World Watch magazine. More than 500 years after Columbus’s arrival, many of the native groups that survived the conquest remain mired in chronic poverty and face new threats in the form of multinational oil and mining companies, soybean farmers, and cattle ranchers.

“This encounter of two worlds, as it is often called, was the first step in a process that led, in short order, to the conquest and European subjugation of the native people of this newly found continent,” writes Chapin, who examines popular accounts of the conquest and finds that many stereotypes and false attitudes still persist throughout scholarly histories written for both adults and children.

Marked by strong European bias, these narratives portray native civilizations as weak and fragile while underestimating the role that disease epidemics played in their demise. Diseases that were generally mild in the Old World, such as smallpox and measles, became lethal in the New World ecosystem, leaving populations vulnerable to attack.

“The epidemics swept across the American landscape like shock troops, and in their wake came starvation, the destruction of traditional institutions, and a profound sense of demoralization and spiritual confusion,” writes Chapin.

In addition to misinformation surrounding the defeat of native populations, Chapin laments the vilification of these peoples throughout history and the toll it continues to have on modern day communities. Many of the survivors have taken refuge in or been pushed into remote regions where they lack the most basic social services and are now being newly overrun by large corporations.

In recent years, native advocacy organizations have formed to respond to these threats and have begun to assert themselves in politics in key areas of Latin America. While economic and political obstacles remain, progress is being made to restore the rights of these oft misunderstood groups.