Documenting colonialism: Millions killed, a changed climate & Europe gets rich
A new study documents the global cost of colonialism.
This is Trahant Reports.
Why does it matter? Because the invasion of the Americas changed everything on the planet. There was a death rate of more than 90 percent of the people, now labeled “depopulation” in a scientific report. At that time, the Indigenous population of the Americas was 10 percent of the world’s population and home to the largest and most complex cities.
The study also raises new questions, the impact of humans on nature? And what that might mean for climate change policy in the decades ahead?
The paper: “Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492,” was written by four geographers from University College London.
The globe went through climate change — a tiny shift in temperatures of 15/100th of a degree — but that was enough to lead to colder temperatures worldwide that resulted in crop failures and colder summers.
The paper explores a big question: Did the invasion and depopulation of the Americas in the 16th and 17th century result in those decline in temperatures, the Little Ice Age? And was that a result of “natural forces” or because the “large-scale depopulation of the Americas after European arrival, subsequent land use change and secondary succession?”
The evidence is complicated. The Indigenous Americas went through a rapid and dramatic shift; a before contact and after contact story. Looking at all of the evidence available today, the University College London team came to the conclusion that the Indigenous population had reached more than 60 million people before contact. That would have been about 10 percent of the world’s population, and the cities in the Americas would have been among the most populous on the planet. In less than a hundred years that Indigenous America population was reduced to 5 or 6 million people; a population decline that exceeded 90 percent, the Great Dying.
The scientists calculated how such a rapid population decline changed agriculture (think of what it took to feed 60 million people) and then what would happen when that farmland became forest and jungle. The scale of “regrowth” was huge, roughly a land mass twice the size of Colorado.
And the scale is significant because Indigenous land use was so widespread before European arrival, particularly in Mexico, Central America, Bolivia and the Andes where terraced fields and irrigated agriculture” were common. “
Indeed it’s the scale of this report, of this history, is daunting. But like any important study, this one by University College London opens up more questions than answers.
I am Mark Trahant.