Native American populations in New England, with no immunity to European diseases, were nearly eradicated by a mysterious epidemic—likely smallpox. Between 1616 and 1619, the population of the Massachusett and other Algonquin tribes was reduced by as much as 90 percent by disease.
A virgin soil epidemic occurs when bacteria or viruses are introduced into an area where no similar diseases have ever occurred before. Lacking even partial immunity, populations are devastated by such epidemics. Many scholars believe that the severity of Native American loss of life during the first decades of European colonization was due to the fact that these were virgin soil epidemics.
Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (Knopf, 2005) won the US National Academy of Sciences’ 2006 Keck Award for the best book of the year. In this lecture he looks at new research on pre-Columbian America. Mann concludes that the Americas had been heavily populated and developed before the arrival of Columbus but then were rapidly depopulated by the introduction of European and African diseases, giving Europeans the mistaken idea that the land was a vast, empty wilderness.
In this lecture Elliott West, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas, describes how the introduction of Old World phenomena such as guns, horses, and new diseases affected the Native peoples of the New World. Those who accepted new technology gained huge societal advantages. On the other hand, European diseases ravaged the indigenous people of the New World who had no inherent immunity to the imported germs.