When Europeans found their way to the Americas, native Americans endured many devastating changes; not only cultural, but biological as well.
When we think of European and Native American Indian contact, we often think of warring and complete takeover of a large group of people. Though this is true, many of the changes that occurred due to European contact are more subtle in nature and some are viewed archaeologically as well as historically.
Biologically, dental caries (or cavities) are witnessed through the tooth remains of Native populations and are likely due to the transition from hunting to horticulture. Plants and grains have higher levels of natural sugars than meat and tend to cause decay. The consumption of new foods higher in sugar also played a role in dental diseases, average weight and overall health Dietary changes, additionally, contribute to the increase in diseases such as rickets and tuberculosis (Bragdon, 2001).
The Native American woman’s status suddenly began to drop with the appearance of Europeans and she was more likely to be mistreated, malnourished and contract a venereal disease (Bragdon, 2001). Mistreated women can often be assumed to have been abused physically. Skeletal remains can show many types of bone trauma likely caused by abuse, and more so in the case of men, warfare; suggesting an increase in fighting.
The general fertility of a population can be affected when contact occurs, disease is rampant, wars are inevitable and food consumption is altered (Crosby, 1986). Crosby also notes that in the wake of a disaster, lingering effects of illness, depression, economic strain and social changes only perpetuate the growing problems of the affected population.
Societal changes that may arise with contact include changes in farming or other sustainability techniques. New animals or plants are introduced which can affect the ecosystem of the area and subsequently damage or destroy the local economy although the opposite may be true. Some societies flourished due to these changes as well.
Imported goods affect the local trade routes, patterns and customs. George Percy (Kupperman, 2000, 63) described his reaction of his first encounter of a Powatan werowance (Virginia) in 1607. He describes adornments of metal (copper) plates on the head, gold earrings and other metal objects. According to Bragdon (2001), this metal likely came from some unknown visitor or was traded to the native people (or given as a gift) by Europeans, possibly from the unsuccessful English settlement at Roanoke or the 1585 Spanish mission on the York River. Archaeological data shows that the metal to come from Europe began appearing in the native area around the early sixteenth century (e.g. Bradley 1987).
Other changes took place during and post-contact; clothing styles, language, decoration for home and body, the disappearance of small groups of native populations, religion, oral traditions and relations. Together with disease, warring, fertility and other aspects of society, biology and economy, contact was to change the American Indian way of life.
This was a very brief account of the changes that occurred with European contact in Northeast America. For more information on this topic, please read The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Northeast by Kathleen J. Bragdon.
Bradley, James W. , 1987. Native Exchange and European Trade: Cross-Cultural Dynamics in the Sixteenth Century. Man in the Northeast 33:31-46
Bragdon, Kathleen J., 2001. The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Northeast. Columbia University Press.
Crosby, A.W., 1986. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press
Kupperman, Karen.,2000. Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press.
Julie (Robinson) St. Jean