Thanks to the growing interest in Indian country and the accessibility of genealogical records online, there has never been a better time to investigate old family rumors about Native ancestry. And as with all genealogy, though it’s entertaining to dig up the roots of one’s family tree, even positive verification of a Cherokee grandmother or Choctaw grandfather often leads to as many questions as answers.

The best thing a curious person can do is start tracing your ancestry back using something like, or Or you can find a genealogist willing to help with the search—professionals are listed by specialty including Native American at If that isn’t something you’d like to do, local libraries can often help as well with research into your genealogy. Either way, you have to start tracing your lineage back and creating a family tree. That’s the best way to get started. That often means interviewing friends and elders who may be able to identify key dates, towns and lineages.

Some conquistadores fed the Spanish dogs with living Indians. Theodor and sons, Americae

No historian seriously questions that the European invasion of the Americas resulted in millions of deaths. The serious debate has been how many millions. What if it was enough millions to change the carbon dioxide (CO2) content in the atmosphere and therefore the climate and ultimately the geology of the Earth?

Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, British geographers writing in Nature, have proposed that a massive die-off of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas has left enough permanent global evidence to define a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. In this seminal study, they examine the Industrial Revolution and the detonation of atomic bombs as potential geological markers.

The Industrial Revolution, they conclude, happened too unevenly to provide worldwide physical evidence pointing to a reasonably specific date. The atomic bomb arrived in 1945 with worldwide geological evidence of permanent change peaking in 1964.


Lewis and Maslin reject 1964 largely because the date is so recent that the changes that began in 1945 are still playing out. I would add that the international treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests went into effect in 1963, and the geological impact of radiation can be radically changed by new countries joining the nuclear club or a war breaking out among the current members. Either of these events would destroy the geological usefulness of 1964.

This leaves the collision between the so-called Old World and New World, which Lewis and Maslin claim caused a dip in atmospheric CO2 that is measurable in many ways worldwide. All measurements point to 1610 as the low point in the dip. The cause of the dip has a great impact on historians’ arguments over American Indian body count from contact with Europeans. While this evidence does not quiet disputes about the intent of the colonists, modern Indians would consider just knowing the approximate body count from physical evidence an improvement in the historical narrative.

How do dead Indians cause lower atmospheric CO2? If we all met the stereotype of hunter-gatherers before Europeans showed up, a die-off would not have a global impact. A charitable view of that stereotype would be that it was a mistake caused by more hunter-gatherers surviving European diseases because, unlike their sedentary farmer cousins, they had very little direct contact with the colonists and therefore less opportunity to be infected.

When farmers die off, their fields go fallow. When the fields go fallow, forests take over, and forests are gigantic carbon sinks, sucking up CO2. Theoretically, if the deaths were enough to move the CO2 in the entire atmosphere, it ought to be possible to “reverse engineer” the body count. Lewis and Maslin started with body counts that match existing scholarship.

The calculation in the Nature article is that the European invasion caused the deaths of approximately 50 million people farming 1.3 hectares per person. Removal of that many people from that much land should sequester between 7 and 14 petagrams of carbon over 100 years, the difference in numbers having to do with how much of the farming was "slash and burn" agriculture, which gives off more CO2.

They suggest that maximum human mortality would happen decades after first contact in 1492 and maximum carbon uptake from the fallow farms would take another 20-50 years, suggesting a date between 1550 and 1650. Ice core CO2 measurements narrow the date to 1610.

This is not a completely abstract dispute. Lewis and Maslin are arguing for recognition of a Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP, less formally known as a “golden spike”) and/or a Global Standard Stratigraphic Act (GSSA). Recognition of these markers requires a consensus in the scientific community.

In 2013, the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) convened a group of scholars charged to decide by 2016 whether the Holocene is over and the Anthropocene has begun. The best evidence of that is a “golden spike,” and the Nature article is aimed at convincing the IUGS that we have a consensus.

Once that consensus is reached, the collision of Europe and the Americas becomes the working paradigm, the method of describing research going forward. What is at stake is the boundary of the Anthropocene, the epoch of humans. From our point of view, genocide will be recognized as a source of anthropogenic climate change. Since the climate change happened, the genocide will be impossible to deny.

RELATED: Climage Change, Geologists, Genesis, and a New Epoch

This story was originally published on March 13, 2015. 

American Indian heritage is a common perception among many Americans, and many people claim to be Native without truly basing their personal history on facts. Tribal nations such as the Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole and Chickasaw have been heavily documented and can trace family lineages back to the 19th and 18th centuries through censuses and lists such as the Dawes Roll.

Be warned: Many Native Americans will roll their eyes at family tales of the mythical ‘Cherokee Princess’ in one’s background, or to be told upon greeting a non-Native that ‘I’m part Cherokee.’ (Cherokee, for a variety of reasons, is the tribe most often associated with families’ genealogy myth-making.)

Most important, contemporary Indian nations have active lists and Native citizenship requirements. They know who belongs to their tribe. ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Who are your people?’ are the most common questions asked at events and pow wows, and there is often something akin to less than six degrees of separation among contemporary Natives. So, as a rule of thumb, ‘discovering’ you are Native or have Indian heritage somewhere in your genealogy bloodline is hardly enough to guarantee tribal enrollment or the benefits of social services (of which there are many myths and misunderstandings)—or, for that matter, the right to call yourself Indian. Tribal historians and enrollment officers can be contacted at individual nations if you need to learn more about a particular tribe’s requirements.

In the modern era, Native American history is rife with examples of families broken apart and separated as part of the boarding school era, the termination era (in which tribal nations were forcibly disbanded) and urban migration (forced off the land and into the cities). There are many stories about families who lost members during this historical trauma and have since sought out hidden branches of their family tree. Given the far-flung landing places for dispossessed people, family reunions are not uncommon in Indian country.

There are also many recovery and healing efforts involving the disproportionate number of children adopted out of Indian country due to misguided government policies. The search to find and heal such ‘Lost Birds’ is ongoing.

The intersection of African American and Native cultures, and the interactions between black Americans and Indians for hundreds of years is also fertile ground for genealogy research. Black Indians form a well-known pantheon in Native history as well, as well as a lively line of genealogical research.

The proliferation of over-the-counter and online DNA kits have also fueled interest in Native genealogy. The results of this method, however, can be far more complicated an ambiguous. Identifying certain strains of heritage through various haplotides is extremely fraught, and a degree of ‘Native blood’ does not often resolve very much. Building and verifying a family tree is the only real means of making sure of a particular tribal descent.


Credit Card Identification Number

This number is recorded as an additional security precaution.


American Express

4 digit, non-embossed number printed above your account number on the front of your card.


3-digit, non-embossed number printed on the signature panel on the of the card immediately following the card account number.


3-digit, non-embossed number printed on the signature panel on the back of the card.

Enter Your Log In Credentials

Send this to a friend

I thought you might find this interesting:
Did the Deaths of 50 Million Indians Cause Climate Change?