Half of California's indigenous people lived more than 47 years until the arrival of Spanish missionaries in 1769; half died without turning 22 after that year
A fantastic book published in the year 1510 in Seville, Las Sergas de Esplandián, narrated 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 settlers reached the west coast of North America in the 16th century, they christened the lands California, a reminder of the legend of a book of chivalry so popular at the time that it even appears in Don Quixote's library. Real California, however, was not populated by Amazons with golden swords, but by indigenous groups helpless in the face of new infectious diseases brought by the newcomers. A new poll has now put numbers on the “catastrophic” downfall of the original population: before the establishment of the Spanish missions, half of the natives lived to be more than 47 years old. After the installation of the so-called “men of God”, half of the places died before turning 22 years old.
The current map of California reveals its origin: San Francisco, San José, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo. After more than two centuries of scant progress, Friar Junípero Serra founded the first Spanish mission, that of San Diego, in 1769. The Franciscans spread throughout the territory in charge of converting local communities of hunters and gatherers into productive subjects of the king Catholic Charles III. The new study, led by American anthropologist Brian Codding, analyzed mortality records the Spanish missions themselves, with data on more than 23,000 people, and another 10,000 deaths prehistoric times. The authors speak of mortality levels similar to those of a “plague” after the establishment of the Spaniards 1769 onwards.
The work, published Monday in the Proceedings magazine of the US National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), estimates that the local population of 43,285 people had shrunk to 7,800 after the missionaries arrived in what is now central California. “The number of deaths after the establishment of the Spanish missions was probably much higher, especially if the population at the time of contact was underestimated and deaths were not recorded,” says Codding of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Martha Ortega, historian at the Metropolitan Autonomous University (Mexico), applauds the new study, “serious and very good”, in which she did not participate.
Some Spanish historians, such as Salvador Bernabéu, have analyzed the mission system in California in recent years. The friars, accompanied by some soldiers, arrived with dogs, horses, chickens, sheep, seeds and gifts to attract the natives. The religious taught them Christian prayers, baptized them and dressed them like the Spaniards: men with shorts and shirts, and women with a dress. Bernabéu, director of the School of Hispano-American Studies (CSIC), noted in his works the “drastic fall” of the indigenous population due to infectious diseases, a problem that was aggravated when the natives were forced to live in poorly ventilated environments during the missions. Smallpox, the common cold, flu, measles, diphtheria, malaria, and venereal diseases devastated the natives.
Viruses and microbes, however, do not alone explain the catastrophe experienced around the Spanish missions, warn the North American authors, who point to other additional factors, such as land expropriation, hunger, slavery and forced displacement. “Perhaps the biggest culprit is the cultural chaos that has spread across America after contact with the Europeans and which may have radically exacerbated the vulnerability of indigenous populations,” propose the researchers in their study. His analysis shows that more women died in the California missions (approximately 13,000) than men (around 10,000), a phenomenon still unexplained, as admitted by another of those responsible, prehistorian Terry Jones, the Polytechnic University State of California in San Luis Obispo.
“There was violence in the missions. There were attempts of revolt by the natives”, says Jones, who relies on the analysis of the bone remains, with marks of blows and projectiles. “And California was not a violence-free paradise either before the arrival of the Spaniards. Historical accounts describe small-scale clashes with violence between indigenous groups, often caused by unauthorized use of another group's resources and encroachment on their territories,” says Jones.
Historians have thought for decades that after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America in 1492, there was a continental epidemic that wiped out the indigenous population, with plagues that would have reached California earlier. than the Spaniards themselves, but studies such as those by Codding and Jones actually show a mosaic of regional epidemics that have arisen over centuries and with different intensities. The plague in California came with the missionaries.