Bob Howard rmhoward at omninet.net.au
Mon Mar 10 23:59:22 EST 2003

Anne Schwarz wrote:

> Hello~
> I am an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design.  Right now I am
> working on a piece that is based on information I found in an article in the
> Atlantic Monthly's March 2002 issue about America before Columbus.  The
> article covered many of the permaculture practices that the Amerindians
> used, particularly in the Amazon.  It also covered the many epidemics that
> wiped out their population.  I am particularly interested in a statement
> about the South American population's immune system being different in that
> it was unusually homogonous compared to other cultures.
> If anybody knows more about this or anything to do with MHC types, I would
> be greatly interested in knowing more.  I am trying to create a diagram(s)
> relating the homogenous MHC types in Amerindians and how it relates to the
> Europeans they were encountering, as well as relating it to the cultural
> differences between the two worlds.

I would be greatly interested in any information you receive. As you will
probably be aware there is a considerable lierature regarding disease and the
European expansion. In particular, jared diamond's book "guns, germs and steel"
povides an overview of the conventional thinkng on this issue.

The disease that had the greatest impact was obviously smallpox (pace dubya).
It's spread throughout south and central america is well documented.

It also had an affect in Australia spreading through the eastern states soon
after colonization in the 1790's nd 1810's. The mediating factors in australia
were the lower population density which reduced the spread and the probability
that it had been introduced to northern australia via macassan and others prior
to this.

Notably however, there was no impact in south western australia from smallpox.
Deaths from TB, influenza, whooping cough,"venereal disease" and later measles
had a much greater impact.There is some suggestion however that TB may have been
introduced earlier (perhaps by Dutch or Portugese visitors)

It is said that MHC types are the most variable amongst Aboriginal Australians
compared to any other ethnic group. (sorry i haven't got a handy reference, i'd
be interested in any comparitive figures you come across). This is easily
explicable when one understands the significance of the Aboriginal totemic
system in maintaining outbreeeding and genetic diversity through a greatly
extended concept of incest ( or wrong marriage.)

This is a hot issue in australian history because the other cause of death -
massacres and starvation are contrasted with this and the arguments rage
regarding which had the most impact.

The other issue of interest is the vexed problem of estimating pre -
colonization populations. The early spread of diseases like smallpox may have
resulted in population numbers being larger than early estimates and censuses

bob Howard

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