Massive Population Drop Found for Native Americans, DNA Shows Ker Than
for National Geographic News
Published December 5, 2011
The number of Native Americans quickly shrank by roughly half following European contact about 500 years ago, according to a new genetic study.
The finding supports historical accounts that Europeans triggered a wave of disease, warfare, and enslavement in the New World that had devastating effects for indigenous populations across the Americas.
(Related: "Guns, Germs and Steel—Jared Diamond on Geography as Power.")
Using samples of ancient and modern mitochondrial DNA—which is passed down only from mothers to daughters—the researchers calculated a demographic history for American Indians. (Get an overview of human genetics.)
Based on the data, the team estimates that the Native American population was at an all-time high about 5,000 years ago.
The population then reached a low point about 500 years ago—only a few years after Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World and before extensive European colonization began.