Quick Alternate Histories: A Post-Beringia Pre-Columbian Migration

famed illustration of
smallpox in Mexico
The single most important element in the modern history of the American landmass is that Europeans and Africans brought to it a host of horrific diseases that repeatedly slaughtered indigenous populations from the late 15th century onward. Here's an alternate history for you: What if a large migration from the Afro-Eurasian disease pool had gone to the Americas centuries before? If America's populations had developed immunities to such diseases much earlier, the entire history of the modern world would have turned out much differently.

In the best alternate histories, the "hinge factor" - or the agent that changes everything - is relatively small and easy to accept as plausible. For this situation, I'll admit it's a little more difficult to imagine - but we're going to do it anyway.

early human migrations (source)
Humans may have migrated to the Americas up to 40,000 years ago, and they certainly did between 15 and 20,000 years ago, when the Bering land bridge (or "Beringia") existed. After this, there was at least one other migration before modern times - the Inuit, coming into the Arctic perhaps about 4,000 years ago. The Americas were extremely isolated, however, and small contacts with Europeans (like with Vikings or Irish monks) did not lead to the first Americans experiencing any new diseases from the Afro-Eurasian landmass. This would only happen after the voyages of Columbus - and with devastating, earth-shattering effects.

Smallpox is thought to have appeared in humans about 10,000 years ago - too late to have been brought to the Americas by way of Beringia. Rinderpest, which also gave birth to measles, appeared sometime before 5,000 years ago in China, influenza symptoms were clearly described 2,400 years ago, and cholera likely came about a few thousand years ago also, in India. While the first Americans also experienced disease, they would have had to experience many of the same diseases as Europeans in order to have avoided the "great dying" that went on from the 15th through 19th centuries.

currents (source [ppt])
What I propose, then, is that around the time of the Yayoi period, (300 BCE-300 CE), a large group of Japanese decided to board sturdy ships with lots of supplies and sail eastward across the ocean. (Perhaps they had a cult leader who wanted them to journey toward the rising sun.) Miraculously, most survive the voyage, and guided by the North Pacific Current, they reach land and build a settlement - on the west coast of North America. Fortunately, (for the purposes of our post), this group of Japanese is infected in a few different ways, and through contact with the indigenous peoples around them, epidemics spread across the continent.

This would have given the Americas about a millennium and a half before the era of European exploration for new bacteria and viruses to multiply, spawning misery as well as resistance and immunity. Certainly, these new American diseases would not have been the same as those brought by Columbus and his successors, but coming from Japan (part of the Afro-Eurasian disease pool) they may have been much more similar, and indeed, if Europeans had experienced more deadly diseases when they arrived in the Americas, colonization or "conquest" would have been much more difficult. Not only would Native American societies have avoided such massive destruction due to novel strains of disease, (in many cases 80-90% mortality), but Europeans would have had a much harder time settling on the other side of the Atlantic if significant percentages of would-be colonists died due to American diseases.

Had Native Americans been exposed to new Afro-Eurasian diseases from a post-Beringia pre-Columbian migration, and had the diseases brought by Europeans from the 15th century onward been less devastating in their impact, the history of the entire world would have been massively different. Europeans would have still come to settle and exploit the lands they had just discovered, but their experiences would have not at all been what we're familiar with: Gone would be the glorious victories of Cortes or Pizarro, and settlers like the pilgrims would not have had so much "elbow room" upon arrival.

trans-Atlantic trade (source)
It's certain there would have been many more (and much longer-lasting) conflicts between indigenous and European groups on the east coast of North America had there not been such a epidemiological disadvantage for the former. The economic flourishing of British American colonies could not have transpired as we know it, and indeed, the slave trade might never have gone on, with Europeans either prevented from establishing a plantation economy or successful in enslaving Natives, leaving Africans out of the picture. With strong independent Native societies continuing in the areas Europeans landed, Europe arguably would not have acquired the capital (from mines, the trans-Atlantic triangle trade and so on) to fuel its later "rise" and colonization of much of the world, or even its earlier claims. The story of modern humanity would be nothing like it is.

This is the second post in my "Quick Alternate Histories" series, and yet again I have utterly failed to make it "quick," making a mockery of my series title. (Be sure to check out the first QAH: "A Franco-German Empire.") The whole point of this, though, is to show how fun it is to imagine changes in history, and I've definitely proven that by carrying on and on in my writing. Remember, alternate histories are thought-exercises that prove how accidents and circumstances beyond our control have shaped (and continue to shape) how we live, where we live, and who we are. Had all the crazy possibilities I mentioned in this post occurred, you and I would almost certainly not exist.