Throughout history, food needs bonded humans to nature. The transition to agriculture constituted slow, but revolutionary ecological transformations. After 1500 ce, agricultural goods, as well as pests that undermined them, dominated the exchange of species between four continents. In the United States, increasingly more commercial efforts simplified ecosystems. Improved technologies and market mechanisms facilitated surpluses in the 19th century that fueled industrialization and urbanization. In the 20th century, industrial agriculture involved expensive machinery and chemical pesticides and fertilizers in pursuit of higher outputs and profits, while consumers’ relations with their food sources and nature became attenuated.
Agriculture, Food, and the Environment
Kathleen A. Brosnan and Jacob Blackwell
The field of Atlantic history analyzes the Atlantic Ocean and its four adjoining continents as a single unit of historical analysis. The field is a style of inquiry as much as it is a study of a geographic region. It is an approach that emphasizes connections and circulations, and its practitioners tend to de-emphasize political borders in their interest in exploring the experiences of people whose lives were transformed by their location within this large region. The field’s focus is the period from c. 1450 to 1900, but important debates about periodization reflect the challenges of writing a history that has no single geographic vantage point yet strives to be as inclusive as possible. The history of the United States intersects with Atlantic history in multiple ways, although the fields are neither parallel nor coterminous. Assessing the topics of slavery and citizenship, as they developed in the United States and around the Atlantic, demonstrate the potential advantages of this broader perspective on US history. Although the field emphasizes the early modern era, legacies of Atlantic history pervade the modern world, and individuals and institutions continue to struggle to understand all of the ways these legacies shape legal, social, economic, cultural, and political practices in the first decades of the 21st century.
Epidemics in Indian Country
David S. Jones
Few developments in human history match the demographic consequences of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Between 1500 and 1900 the human populations of the Americas were traBnsformed. Countless American Indians died as Europeans established themselves, and imported Africans as slaves, in the Americas. Much of the mortality came from epidemics that swept through Indian country. The historical record is full of dramatic stories of smallpox, measles, influenza, and acute contagious diseases striking American Indian communities, causing untold suffering and facilitating European conquest. Some scholars have gone so far as to invoke the irresistible power of natural selection to explain what happened. They argue that the long isolation of Native Americans from other human populations left them uniquely susceptible to the Eurasian pathogens that accompanied European explorers and settlers; nothing could have been done to prevent the inevitable decimation of American Indians. The reality, however, is more complex. Scientists have not found convincing evidence that American Indians had a genetic susceptibility to infectious diseases. Meanwhile, it is clear that the conditions of life before and after colonization could have left Indians vulnerable to a host of diseases. Many American populations had been struggling to subsist, with declining populations, before Europeans arrived; the chaos, warfare, and demoralization that accompanied colonization made things worse. Seen from this perspective, the devastating mortality was not the result of the forces of evolution and natural selection but rather stemmed from social, economic, and political forces at work during encounter and colonization. Getting the story correct is essential. American Indians in the United States, and indigenous populations worldwide, still suffer dire health inequalities. Although smallpox is gone and many of the old infections are well controlled, new diseases have risen to prominence, especially heart disease, diabetes, cancer, substance abuse, and mental illness. The stories we tell about the history of epidemics in Indian country influence the policies we pursue to alleviate them today.
Indigenous Peoples and the Environment to 1890
Indigenous peoples have had profound spiritual and ethical relationships with their environments, but they necessarily altered ecosystems as they fed, clothed, and sheltered themselves and traded goods, long before European colonists arrived. Their impacts became broader in scope and scale under settler colonialism, which corrupted and constrained their environmental relationships. The history of Indigenous peoples and their environments, to be sure, is not a single narrative but a constellation of stories that converge and diverge. Nonetheless, an analysis of the environmental histories of only a fraction of the more than 575 Indigenous groups, including Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, reveals major trends and commonalities. The environmental historiography of the First Peoples from their beginnings in what is now the United States roughly through the 19th century provides an opportunity to address such topics as the myth of the “Ecological Indian,” ancient urban societies, the introduction of European livestock and disease, and subsistence through agriculture, hunting, and fishing. The history of dispossession in the late 19th century and the environmental history of Indigenous peoples in the recent era may be found in “Indigenous Peoples and the Environment since 1890.”