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Perhaps the Greatest Epidemic Ever

When the Spanish landed in the Americas, they brought many things to which the indigenous people were unaccustomed. These included horses, firearms, steel armor, and weapons. Most importantly, though, the Spaniards introduced a disease to which the natives had no immunity: smallpox.

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An original Aztec drawing of the effects of small pox
Smallpox first arrived in the Americas in 1519 on the Caribbean island of Santa Domingo, killing half of the indigenous population. The disease moved quickly to the Antilles islands and spread through the Mexican Mainland by 1520. In 1521, when the Spanish conquistadors, under Hernán Cortés, attacked the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), they discovered that the city had already been devastated by a greater force. Cortés' own chronicler, Bernal Diaz, wrote, "I solemnly swear that all the houses and stockades in the lake were full of heads and corpses. It was the same in the streets and courts. . .we could not walk without treading on the bodies and heads of dead Indians. Indeed, the stench was so bad that no one could endure it. . .and even Cortès was ill from the odors which assailed his nostrils."

Viruses, like bacteria and parasites, survive and reproduce best when they don't destroy their hosts. Consequently, when one of these germs is newly introduced into a previously unexposed population, it frequently kills all but the most resistant people rather quickly (the smallpox mortality rate is estimated at about 66% for an unvaccinated population). Then, as the deadliest strains of the virus die along with their hosts, only mild strains live on within the strongest survivors. These survivors continue to repopulate and a mutual tolerance is achieved, transforming a killer plague into a childhood illness, such as smallpox or measles. The Black Death affected Europe in this way during the Middle Ages.

In medieval Europe, centuries of animal domestication (pigs, horses, cattle), war, exploration, and city building circulated many diseases, bringing many Europeans to the point of near-immunization. Therefore, by the time they crossed the Atlantic, most of the explorers had already contracted and become immune to measles and smallpox as children.

The native Americans, however, weren't so lucky. In the Americas before European settlement, there is evidence for the existence of only a few diseases, such as syphilis, tuberculosis, intestinal parasites, and the flu -- not measles or smallpox. In biological isolation since crossing the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska, the indigenous people were extremely susceptible to the Europeans' diseases. Furthermore, the explorers also brought other diseases that the natives were defenseless against: mumps, whooping cough, cholera, gonorrhea, and yellow fever.

From Mexico, the disease spread further and faster than the Spanish explorers themselves. For the next five years, smallpox annihilated most of the native population of Panama. By the time it successfully crossed the jungle into South America, there was nothing left to stop it from continuing southward down through the Andes to the entire continent. It was so contagious that any native who received news of the Spaniards' arrival could also have received the infection. This epidemic was the single most powerful and far-reaching loss of life ever to occur in the New World.

Huayna Capac, the last Inca to rule over a unified empire, was a victim of smallpox, which also claimed his family, his heir, and many of his servants. The entire Inca Empire was devastated by the spread of smallpox, from the governing elite in Tumi Bamba (within modern-day Ecuador) to the southern capital of Cuzco. Aside from the monumental death toll, the sudden impact of the epidemic also contributed to social disorder, political destabilization, and widespread fear. It left people too weak and demoralized to harvest food or tend their young. All of these factors further contributed to the climate of the approaching Inca Civil war (between Huayna Capac's two surviving sons struggling for supreme power).

The spread of disease had lasting social consequences for the Americas as well. In the face of such widespread death, native people often became convinced that their ancestral gods had abandoned them, making them more susceptible to the Christianity of their conquerors. Further, as partners became scarce, marriage patterns within North American tribes were also forced to change, leading to a departure from tradition and a degradation of their unique cultures. Even the African slave trade was affected by disease in the Americas: because the Africans shared immunities with the Europeans, they were considered better slaves, and further exploited as such.

Smallpox didn't care whether you were rich or poor, a lord or a peasant. Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, and King Louis XV of France both died of smallpox, along with millions of their subjects. For an exhaustive history of the disease and scientists' efforts to eradicate it, click here: Smallpox: The Triumph over the Most Terrible of the Ministers of Death

It is estimated that as many as 40 or 50 million people lived in the New World when Columbus landed, but many of them died within decades from disease. The native population in Mexico, for example, fell from 30 million in 1519 to only 3 million in 1568. Disease similarly wiped out much of the population in the Caribbean islands, Central America, and Peru. In addition to ruthlessness, deception, and technology, disease acted as a vital weapon, a weapon the Conquistadors didn't even realize they had. Certainly, they would not have been as successful in their destruction of the Americas without it.


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