RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Half of California’s indigenous people lived longer than 47 years until the arrival of Spanish missionaries in 1769; half died before reaching the age of 22 after that year.
A fantastic book published in 1510 in Seville, The exploits of Esplandián, recounted the fabulous adventures of a Christian knight through imaginary places such as California, an earthly paradise inhabited by warrior women covered in gold.
When Spanish colonizers reached North America’s west coast in the 16th century, they named the land California, a reminder of the legend from a chivalric novel so popular at the time that it even appears in Don Quixote’s library.
The real California, however, was not populated by amazons with golden swords, but rather by indigenous groups defenseless before new infectious diseases brought by the newcomers.
New research has now put numbers on the “catastrophic” decline of the original population: before the establishment of the Spanish missions, half of the natives lived longer than 47 years. After the so-called “men of God” settled, half of the locals died before their 22nd birthday.
The current map of California reveals its origins: San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo. After over two centuries of meager advances, friar Junípero Serra founded the first Spanish mission, San Diego, in 1769.
Franciscans spread across the territory with the task of converting the local communities of hunters and gatherers into productive subjects of Catholic King Charles III.
The new study, led by American anthropologist Brian Codding, analyzed mortality records from the Spanish missions themselves, with data on more than 23,000 people, and another 10,000 deaths from prehistoric times. The authors speak of mortality levels similar to those of a “plague” following the settlement of Spaniards starting in 1769.
The paper, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), estimates that the local population of 43,285 people was reduced to 7,800 individuals after the missionaries reached what is now central California.
“The number of deaths after the Spanish missions settled was probably much higher, especially if the population at the time of contact was underestimated and if deaths were not recorded,” says Codding, of the University of Utah at Salt Lake City. Martha Ortega, a historian at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (Mexico), applauds the new study, “serious and very good,” in which she did not participate.
Some Spanish historians, such as Salvador Bernabéu, analyzed the mission system in California in recent years. Friars, accompanied by some soldiers, came with dogs, horses, chickens, sheep, seeds and gifts to attract the natives. The religious taught them Christian prayers, baptized them, and dressed them as the Spaniards did: men in shorts and shirts, and women in dresses.
Bernabéu, director of the School of Hispano-American Studies (CSIC), noted in his works the “drastic decline” of the indigenous population due to infectious diseases, a problem that worsened when the natives were forced to live in poorly ventilated environments in the missions. Smallpox, the common cold, influenza, measles, diphtheria, malaria and venereal diseases ravaged the natives.
However, viruses and microbes do not alone explain the catastrophe experienced around the Spanish missions, the American authors alert, pointing to other additional factors, such as land expropriation, starvation, slavery, and forced displacement.
“Perhaps the main culprit is the cultural chaos that spread across America after contact with Europeans and that may have radically exacerbated the vulnerability of indigenous populations,” the researchers propose in their study.
Their analysis shows that in the Californian missions a greater number of women (approximately 13,000) died than men (around 10,000), a phenomenon still unexplained, concedes prehistorian Terry Jones from California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.
“There was violence in the missions. There were uprising attempts by the natives,” Jones says, who relies on analysis of bone remains with marks of blows and projectiles.
“California was not a violence-free paradise before Spaniards arrived. Historical accounts describe small-scale clashes with violence between native groups, often caused by unauthorized use of another group’s resources and invasion of their territories,” Jones stresses.
For decades historians believed that after Christopher Columbus reached America in 1492 there was a continental epidemic that wiped out the indigenous population, with plagues that would have reached California before the Spaniards themselves, but studies such as Codding and Jones’ actually show a mosaic of regional epidemics that arose over centuries and with different intensities.
The plague in California came with the missionaries.
Source: El Pais