Blame It On Columbus

By Bill Moore

Posted: 22 Oct 2011

Anytime you talk about global warming and mankind's involvement in it through the release of hundreds of millions of years-worth of sequestered carbon in the form of coal, petroleum, and methane, skeptics will often point to the "Little Ice Age" that occurred starting in the 16th century and lasted well into the 19th.

The point of citing this event is to confound proponents of man-made climate change. They argue that if carbon released by man's activities is the cause of global warming, what accounts for this cooling before the onset of the industrial revolution?

Up until now we really didn't know. Now we may have a cause that isn't as implausible as it first sounds: blame it on Columbus.

To understand how Columbus and those Europeans who followed him may have caused the "Little Ice Age," you need to understand what the New World was like prior to 1492. In his best selling book, '1491 - New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,' Charles C. Mann cites research that sees the population of both North, Central and South America as high as 100 million people. Over the course of hundreds of centuries, possibly going back as much as 30,000 years, the peoples of the Western Hemisphere had built up vast empires with settlements stretching from high Arctic to the tip of South America. There are historical records that cite how the length of the Amazon was settled by villages of 10,000 people and more. Recent aerial photos of the region have uncovered vast earthen works of fish ponds, canals, straight-as-arrow dikes, circular mounds, many of them rich in pottery chards dating back centuries. Upwards of as many as 10 million people could have inhabited the central Amazon basin alone prior to 1492.

Mann makes the case that the arrival of Europeans through the early 1500's brought an end to pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas through the inadvertent dissemination of European diseases for which the native peoples had no immunity: measles, smallpox, typhus, diphtheria. An eyewitness to one such outbreak in the Incan empire in 1565 wrote, "They died by the scores and the hundreds. Villages were depopulated. Corpses were scattered over the field or piled up in the house or huts… the fields were uncultivated; the herds were untended [and] the price of food rose to such an extent that many persons found it beyond their reach. They escaped the foul disease, but only to be wasted by famine."

This particular region known as Tawantinsuyu was decimated by smallpox in 1533, 1535, 1558 and 1565. It was also similarly devastated by what researchers think was typhus in 1546, influenza in 1558, diphtheria in 1614 and measles in 1618. What happened here was repeated time and again across the New World; spread by conquistadors and their pigs, by Portuguese fishermen and English and French explorers and traders. Plymouth Colony was founded on the ruins of a Wampanoag village whose original inhabitants had died in an earlier epidemic or fled deeper into what would become Massachusetts. The Pilgrims survived their first harsh winter eating the grains stored by the now vanished natives in several abandoned villages around them. Over the previous century, it's estimated 90% of the native population of the America's died of disease and famine.

From the terraced fields of the Andes to the slash & burn farming techniques of the central Amazon to the prairie fires set annually to manage bison herds and other wild herbivores to park-like forests and meadows where maize and squash and other food crops were grown in abundance, the New World amazed the first Europeans at its richness and complexity. But by the time of the Plymouth and Roanoke colonies, the damage had been done. The managers of the land, Mann argues, were dead, their fields quickly overrun by the re-emerging forest that sucked carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, sequestering it for the next two hundred years. With much of the warming blanket of CO2 missing, the planet began to rapidly cool, reaching its coldest point just as the Pilgrims were setting sail for the now largely empty New World.

The vast herds of bison and countless flocks of passenger pigeons 19th century adventurers encountered weren't a reflection of some 'Eden' but of an ecosystem seeking equilibrium after millennia of human habitation and cultivation.

It was this century-long humanitarian disaster, which no one at the time understood or was capable of dealing with medically, and the resulting ecological crisis, that may well have been responsible for the steady cooling of the climate, which doesn't begin to warm again until the 19th century with the age of industrialization, as the graph above demonstrates.

It is a compelling theory -- and I should point out that it isn't Mann's -- but since records are spotty and few witnesses survived the onslaught, much of what we know about the genocide that swept across the western hemisphere in the 16th century can only be inferred from journals of the period and Spanish mission records. If it is what produced the "Little Ice Age," it would not only completely alter the long established view that except for a few isolated bands of Indians, the continents were largely 'empty,' but it also suggests that even paleolithic cultures, given sufficient population densities, may have had a profound effect on earth's climate, enough so that destroying that culture in a relatively short 100 years dramatically impacted temperatures for the next three hundred years.

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