During the latter half of the sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century, irreversible changes occurred across the cultural landscape of the North Carolina Piedmont. Many factors were responsible for these changes; however, the most devastating change was brought about by the most minuscule of agents, the microbes that bore diseases deadly to the natives. When these diseases were introduced and the extent of their spread recently has become the subject of debate in the fields of demography, archaeology, physical anthropology, and ethnohistory. (See video clip describing the effects of disease on the North Carolina Piedmont [available video formats: Quicktime, MPEG-1, MPEG-4, RealPlayer.]).
Some researchers (e.g., Ramenofsky 1987; Smith 1987) have generally supported the position taken by Henry Dobyns (1983). In a nutshell, Dobyns believes that waves of pandemics swept through the interior Southeast with the arrival of the earliest Spanish explorers in the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Gulf coastal region. These "virgin soil" epidemics struck with a deadly fury, causing drastic population declines in regions far removed from the initial areas of face-to-face contacts between foreigners and Indians (Dobyns 1983:13).
Other researchers (e.g., Blakely and Detweiler-Blakely 1989; Henige 1989; Milner 1980:47; Snow and Lanphear 1989) have followed a more cautious path and pointed out that the impact and spread of Old World pathogens were probably dependent on a number of local and regional variables. Community size, inter-village interaction, and the degree and intensity of trade and contact all affected the rapidity and scope of the spread of epidemic diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza.
Both positions rely primarily on historical and ethnographic data. Archaeological data, at least excavation data, have rarely been employed in demographic studies. Archaeologists who have approached the problem of population collapse in the Southeast usually have done so by ordering sites chronologically within the context of regional surveys and reconstructing population changes based on shifting site frequencies. In this paper, we reconstruct population dynamics by presenting data from extensive excavations in a relatively small region where a detailed chronology has been developed.
Recent research in the northeastern North Carolina Piedmont has resulted in the development and refinement of the cultural chronology spanning the period between A.D. 1500 and 1700 (Dickens et al. 1987). During this period, the Siouan tribes who occupied the region witnessed the sporadic and episodic adventures of the Spanish explorers as well as the prolonged and intensified commercial endeavors of the English traders.
Excavations and surveys conducted in the Haw, Eno, and Dan river drainages (see map) over the last six years have produced not only a fine-grained chronology of settlement change (Davis and Ward 1991) but also detailed community plans of individual villages and extensive mortuary material. When these data are coupled with information from the ethnohistoric and historic documents, a vivid picture of life on the Carolina Piedmont during the Contact period emerges.
In order to focus on that portion of the picture which maps the impact of alien diseases on the piedmont Siouans, archaeological data from the sixteenth century will be compared with similar data from the seventeenth century and with the ethnohistoric accounts of early travelers. If Dobyns is correct, there should be evidence of massive depopulation during the sixteenth century because of epidemics introduced by the Spanish while exploring the coastal and interior Southeast. If, on the other hand, the spread of Old World diseases was dependent on more direct and sustained interaction between natives and Europeans, then the seventeenth century and the arrival of the English should foreshadow the beginning of the depopulation process.