Documenting colonialism: Millions killed, a changed climate & Europe gets rich

The Macchu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Cusco in Peru, at twilight. A new study documents the loss of farm land because of the genocide that occurred. (Creative Commons photo by Martin St-Amant)

Mark Trahant

Study raises questions about the impact of humans on nature and what that might mean for climate change in the future

Cover for a "Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies." (1542)

The destruction of the Indigenous world has been chronicled ever since Bartolomé de las Casas wrote “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” in 1552. He even described "more than thirty other islands in the vicinity of San Juan are for the most part and for the same reason depopulated, and the land laid waste. On these islands I estimate there are 2,100 leagues of land that have been ruined and depopulated, empty of people."

Now a new study adds hard data, documenting the global cost of colonialism.

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, labeled "depopulation" in the scientific report. At that time, the Indigenous population of the Americas was 10 percent of the world's population and the home to the largest and most complex cities.

The study also raises new questions about the “anthropogenic” or 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, Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark M. Maslin and Simon L. Lewis. The peer-reviewed article was published by Quaternary Science Reviews.

The study shows how Europe thrived after the genocide. "The really weird thing is, the depopulation of the Americas may have inadvertently allowed the Europeans to dominate the world," coauthor Mark Maslin told the BBC. "It also allowed for the Industrial Revolution and for Europeans to continue that domination."

“Human impacts prior to the Industrial Revolution are not well constrained,” the authors wrote. “We investigate whether the decline in global atmospheric CO2 concentration by 7 - 10 ppm in the late 1500s and early 1600s which globally lowered surface air temperatures by 0.15 C.”

Even though the global shift in temperature was tiny, only 15/100th of a degree, yet that was enough to lead to colder temperatures worldwide that resulted in crop failures and colder summers.

The researchers examined ice cores from Antarctica which measures the atmospheric gases, including carbon dioxide, that were trapped centuries ago.

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 of 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. But the problem is that the evidence was “only documented in the decades after European contact.” So the scientists looked at indirect methods to calculate a hemispheric estimate.

The first problem was trying to figure out how many people lived in the Americas. In Mexico, for example, the Europeans first arrived in 1519 but the first census took place in 1568 and other documentary evidence starts around 1540. That population evidence includes tributes, the size of armies, and settlement infrastructure.

So looking at all of the evidence available today the University College London team came to the conclusion that the Indigenous population 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’s 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 would change agriculture (think of what it took to feed 60 million people) and land. This is what happened when farmland became forest and jungle. And the scale of “regrowth” was huge, roughly a land mass twice the size of Colorado.

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. “The uptake of carbon on the abandoned anthropogenic lands after European contact may have been large enough to impact the atmospheric CO2 record,” the study says.

"To put that in the modern context, we basically burn (fossil fuels) and produce about 3 ppm per year. So, we're talking a large amount of carbon that's being sucked out of the atmosphere," Maslin told BBC. "There is a marked cooling around that time (1500s/1600s) which is called the Little Ice Age, and what's interesting is that we can see natural processes giving a little bit of cooling, but actually to get the full cooling -- double the natural processes -- you have to have this genocide-generated drop in CO₂."

The authors say their study shows that the “global carbon budget of the 1500s cannot be balanced until large-scale vegetation regeneration in the Americas is included. The Great Dying of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas resulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth System in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution.”

There are implications in this study for Indian Country beyond history.

One problem is how to quantify the impact of climate change on tribal communities. As the most recent National Climate Assessment reports: “The literature currently lacks studies that attempt to quantify and/or monetize climate impacts on Indigenous economies or economic activities.”

So, now, what if that thinking is too small? There is now scientific evidence that links climate change to the first encounter and the cumulative destruction of Indigenous societies. Should there be an accounting? How would that work? Would the balance of accounts be broadened to include other industrial societies in Europe as well as the United States itself?

There are also questions raised in this study about climate change policy. As one of the authors, Chris Brierley told BBC, “there is a lot of talk around ‘negative emissions’ approaching and using tree-planting to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to mitigate climate change. And what we see from this study is the scale of what’s required, because the Great Dying resulted in an area the size of France being reforested and that gave us only a few parts per million. This is useful; it shows us what reforestation can do. But at the same, that kind of reduction is worth perhaps just two years of fossil fuel emissions at the present rate.”

Indeed 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.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports


Previous story: Fawn Sharp to big oil: Time's up

Comments (2)
No. 1-2
David Hollenshead
David Hollenshead

"like any important study, this one by University College London opens up more questions than answers." The big question is "will humanity continue to pursue a Dystopian Future, or will it learn from history "?? Anyone who has taken the time to learn about our history during natural climate change understands that the two are closely interlinked. The geat & difficult journey from Siberia was possible due to sea level dropping during the last Ice Age, and this journey was necessary to avoid starvation, also due to climate change...


This horrendous, murderous history is factually documented overall. Indigenous victims of the white races from Europe must reestablish their history & existence in all inches of lands that they were meticulously wiped away & overwritten to indicate a non-existence. Indigenous victims of North America, South/Central America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Caribbean Islands, Hawaiian Islands, Pacific Islands & all lands where the indigenous suffered so greatly as to effect their descendants even today to continue to suffer lack of education, poverty, alcoholism, drug addictions, lack of representation in government entities on their own lands & be incarcerated in unacceptable illegal masses must come together. These victims must come together & legally hold the terrorist of the past accountable for their actions. These terrorist were vile in their treatment of humanity & fraudulently slandered the characters of these victims so as to hide their own atrocious actions of murder, genocide, theft of land. Using the same common rationale, justification of means by which to hide their dirty deeds of stealing land for setting up their own system to benefit only & exclusively themselves while destroying indigenous. The descendants of these terrorist of the past know full well what was done but continue to hide and continue in the fraud against indigenous of lands that are continually invaded, using gentrification & other methods to further the destruction of indigenous because the prosperity & benefits exclusively to the white race of Europe outweigh what any truth of their actions would bring forth to enlighten the world of their real factual deeds. The indigenous all must dome together, document, record, by written declaration and demand back pay of all resources stolen by means of lies, murder, theft by the British, Irish, Scottish, Dutch, French, Germans, Swedish, Finish, Danish, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Germany & the millions of Jews that joined in the free-for-all to steal, kill and plunder. These countries have been made powerful only because they killed and took resources from innocent victims that in common were fighting with stone aged weapons against advanced militarily organized terrorist.