News & AnalysisHuman Evolutionary Genetics

Genes Confirm Europeans' Blow to Native Americans

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Science  09 Dec 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6061, pp. 1335
DOI: 10.1126/science.334.6061.1335

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Some historians say that European colonization of the New World wiped out native populations through warfare, enslavement, and epidemics of new diseases such as smallpox, influenza, and measles by as much as 90%. But other scholars have argued that the decline was relatively modest and transient, and that populations eventually recovered to precontact levels. Recent genetic studies of Native Americans have failed to detect signs of population crashes. Now, a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences using both modern and ancient mitochondrial DNA from Native Americans concludes that about 500 years ago, the number of reproductively active Native American women quickly plunged by half, indicating a "widespread and severe" contraction in population size.