WARNING! Potentially depressing/disturbing article below!! Read at your own risk!!
(Haha I know… now you’re curious. That was pretty mean of me. I’m sorry.)
In a Nutshell…
Information is always condensed. Science, math, history, English and every single subject taught today is condensed into “nutshell” versions to become more appealing to the public. Ideally, the “nutshell” version expands as one progresses through the educational system. For example, a 3rd grader might have only a vague idea of basic mathematics, but by graduation he/she is expected to know geometry, pre-calculus, and greatly advanced concepts compared to simple fractions. Further still, if one were to pursue a degree in mathematics, their knowledge would continue to expand to encompass statistics, calculus, trigonometry, etc. Ideally, the “nutshell” version of knowledge initially taught, grows to become an oak tree of information—the big picture. However, I’d like to argue that this philosophy is seldom realized, especially with expansive subjects such as history. Students, even through high school and college, are given only a shadow glance of the big picture. They leave indoctrinated with facts on World War I and II, but cause, effect, future ramifications, and the big picture are often neglected.
The Paradox of Numbers
Along these lines is a phenomenon I like to call The Paradox of Numbers. This is the tendency for numbers to lose their value as they increase. Interesting huh? My theory is that as a number becomes larger and larger, it loses its significance. This will likely become painfully obvious as we consider an example below.
Forgotten History and the Paradox of Numbers: The Greatest Wipeout in History
Disclaimer: I’m no historian. The events depicted below are from my own personal research and interest in the subject. This article is not designed to educate you on a period of history, or even a specific historical event. It is designed to encourage consideration of a seldom discussed incident.
So without further ado…
To begin, we’re going to talk about America before it was ever the magnificent “US of A.” The natives who roamed the North American continent before European settlements emerged in the late 1600s and early 1700s, were relatively primitive. They farmed and had political systems and communities, yet they did not have a system of formal written language, or gunpowder, or densely populated urban areas, or even iPhones for that matter. So yeah, very primitive.
No one really knows how many natives lived in North America before Columbus made his grand voyage to the New World in 1492, but there were a lot. Some estimates range from under 10 million to over 100 million natives (quite the margin of error there). I’ll explain why population numbers are so important in a moment. Estimating population during this time is so difficult due to a lack of written records. The first national consensus didn’t occur until 1749 in Sweden, followed shortly after in 1790 by the United States, 1801 in France and Britain, and 1953 in China.
Due to the lack of records (remember, no written language or iPhones), one may only guestimate as to the Native population in the 1400s when explorers first ventured into the New World. Initial estimations from the late 1800s and early 1900s are relatively low (about 500,000 to 1.2 million—give or take). However, due to recent studies, the population is estimated to have been far, FAR, greater during Columbus’ era than originally imagined—ranging from 90-112.4 million. (These numbers are derived from the examination of archaeological sites, Indian buildings/villages, their canoes, as well as their acres of corn and beans). While we will never know the exact number of Natives during the 14-1500s—whether 50, 70, 90, 100 million or more—the fact is, after a mere 150 years, only a fraction would remain.
See, life was all well and good for the thriving natives of North and South America, until one warm October day, an ambitious explorer sighted land.
We were all taught the cute adage: “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” but the sheer impact of his mission and the astronomical significance it had on the Native Americans is unfathomably gargantuan. So much so, that it is nearly impossible to comprehend, let alone explain to a 4th grader.
Christopher Columbus made four voyages across the Atlantic (between 1492 and 1502) as an explorer for Spain. Great Britain and France (always a few steps behind), soon followed Spain’s example and set sail to the New World as well. Before long, many ships from Spain, Britain, and France sailed to and fro exploring and seeking ways to capitalize off their new discovery.
Somewhere in the history of these initial voyages, a ship docked that carried a fateful sailor. Perhaps he was an explorer, perhaps a slave, perhaps even an indentured servant—no one will ever know for sure. But this sailor carried one of the deadliest weapons ever known—a pathogen. A pathogen that in 150 years would almost completely eradicate an entire population.
Okay, so it probably wasn’t a single pathogen, but you get the idea.
Disease. Smallpox, measles, influenza, and bubonic plague were transported to the New World and to the unsuspecting Indians. With no immunity to such diseases, the Indians were decimated. “By 1650, records suggest that only 6 million Indians remained in all of North America, South America, and the Caribbean” (Pre-Columbian Population by Lewis Lord). Complete and total wipeout. Millions upon millions of natives were devastated by disease. To put these numbers into perspective, let’s be conservative and suggest that 90 million Indians lived when Columbus first landed in the Americas. In 150 years, the Native population dropped by 84 million. That’s over 90%! Comparatively, WW2—the bloodiest war in terms of casualties—claimed the lives of 60 million.
To imagine that life can be so totally obliterated by a single pathogen (okay, several pathogens) is overwhelming. The annihilation of Native Americans is probably one of the most overlooked unintended consequences in history. It is a reminder of how impactful settlers were to the New World—and not necessarily in a positive way. It is a reminder of how fragile life is, and how much we take it for granted.
(Read more about the Pre-Columbian population here)
It also painfully illustrates The Paradox of Numbers theory. The theory states that the larger a number becomes, the less value we place on its significance. In other words, our understanding of numbers is inversely proportionate to their size.
Let me offer an illustration. I was talking to my boyfriend recently about the tragic death of a Navy SEAL killed during a raid on an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen. My boyfriend commented on the life of the soldier—Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens—the number of his deployments, the family he left behind. I stared blankly out the window thinking of the man who sacrificed his life for the protection of our beautiful republic. Yet as I contemplated the life of one man, I neglected to consider the 14 al Qaeda members who also lost their lives in the raid.
“But they are the enemy,” I hear you say.
Perhaps—but they’re still people. They still have family, friends, and loved ones. They still made memories and laughed and cried. They were still….people.
While we can cringe and cry over the 20 children that were killed in the Newtown, Connecticut shooting in 2012, we simply cannot fathom the 800,000 Africans murdered during the Rwanda genocide.
Numbers are tricky. They’re deceptive. Or perhaps our minds are deceptive. We simply cannot grasp or even begin to understand these terribly large numbers.
Most people will merely skim over the number in this blog title. They will glance at it and think “that’s a big number.” But they won’t read it. They won’t say: fifty-seven million, eight hundred and ninety-seven thousand, and two-hundred and fifty.
Our minds are so finite—we grasp finite concepts. And the murder of 800,000 Africans, or 60 million soldiers, or 100 million Native Americas are simply too massive to comprehend. People. Life. Breath. Gone.
The Paradox of Numbers is a tragedy. It’s a horrible truth that life decreases in meaning as death toll increases. The value of a human soul means less and less. But why? Because numbers like these are simply too catastrophic, appalling, hideous, and gruesome to understand.
So why am I telling you this? What a depressing article. Yeah, you’re right. But to be able to understand the world in which we live, we must understand the past. This is more than merely knowing that Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas and gave diseases to the Natives. It’s understanding the impact of a pathogen and the enormous and horrendous effect of disease. It’s understanding how fragile life can be. It’s placing an estimate on the value of the person—not the number.
History is beautiful. Numbers are beautiful. But understanding is priceless. I challenge you to consider life and expand the “nutshell” version of knowledge you’ve been taught. Is it really so simple? Next time you see a number—read it. Say it. Think it. Understand it. Contemplate the life that was lived and lost. We must get out of the habit of minimizing and simplifying infinitely complex ideas, events, and numbers.
It’s sobering, but it’s a paradigm shift that will change the way you think forever. Thanks for reading and remember—Today will be amazing.
If you’re interested in understanding a few of these concepts in greater depth, I suggest Crash Course US History. Crash Course offers phenomenal information on “big picture” events, concepts, and ideas. They are a tremendous resource in furthering your own personal knowledge on countless subjects.
Also, if you’re curious about plauges and how they spread to the American Indians, and why no plagues spread from the Natives to the Europeans, check of this great video by CGP Grey: Americapox: The Missing Plague