Were Native Americans doomed to be wiped out by disease?

  1. I'm currently reading 1491, a book which tries to piece together what the Americas were like pre-columbus.

    One of the main points of the book is that estimates that the Americas had several million people at the point of European arrival are ridiculously small, due to the fact that European diseases spread throughout the Americas much faster than European conquerers did. So the conquerers of the Aztecs, Incas etc. all encountered populations that had been dramatically reduced by the spread of European disease, possibly by 90-95%.

    There were many European diseases that the Native Americans had no natural defenses to, and they were all introduced within a very short time frame, meaning that the indigenous people didn't have anywhere near the time as populations to adjust to these new diseases, and were easily conquered by Europeans.

    My question is, was this inevitable?

    There is no way the Americas could have stayed isolated from the old world, at some point contact was inevitable, and with that contact, the spread of diseases.

    Is there any reasonable alternative path history might have taken that would have allowed the Native Americans to adjust to these diseases?

    Does anyone know about Native American immunology today? For instance, in Peru or Bolivia, do indigenous populations STILL have greater susceptibility to old-world diseases?

    Obviously many people in the Americas have mixed ancestry, which helps boost immunity, but have ''pure'' indigenous populations developed resistances that their ancestors lacked in 1491?
  2. jcsd
  3. And why weren't the Euros wiped out by native American diseases? Was it a matter of the NAs coming from a much less diverse gene pool than the Euros?
  4. lisab

    lisab 3,188
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    I've always wondered that too. Are there any records of disease going the other way (NA to Europe)?
  5. Evo

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    What Native American diseases are you referring to?
  6. Borek

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    I don't think brocks refers to anything in particular. However, it seems logical that separated populations have their own sets of diseases. We know of some of those that were present in Europe, as they were described in many written European sources from the period, I guess if we know nothing about the diseases of NA that because there are not many equivalent sources in Americas (perhaps something from Maya, but nothing further north?).

    Following that logic it looks at least probable that some NA diseases should be able to bring havoc to Europe.
  7. arildno

    arildno 11,265
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    European colonizers WERE wiped out, in large numbers by "native american" diseases.
    It was regarded highly hazardaous to go to the colonies in the early centuries.

    The relevant point is that it was the "motherlode" of the Native American gene pool that was infected by the Europeans, while the motherlode of the European gene pool was kept safe from native american infection (only the tiny subset of European colonizers met that infection).

    Furthermore, new European colonizers, although on their own at risk for being infected by native american disease would to a much larger extent than their native american counterparts intermarry with survivors of native american infections (i.e, "old" colonizers).

    In short, the Europeans had a constant influx of disease-carrying individuals that was primarily lethal to the original population, and this colonizer population quickly became resistant to the diseases of the New World as well.
    The motherlode of the European gene pool remained safe and unifected back in..Europe.

    In contrast, the new diseases brought on by the Europeans wrought havoc in the core population of the native americans, and their immunization rate was for too long too low relative to the infection rate.
    As for whether the native americans was "doomed", of course not.
    If the native americans had colonized Europe (and not the other way round), you'd see an extermination by disease of Europeans equally bad, and we would all be Aztecs by now..
  8. ideasrule

    ideasrule 2,315
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    I'm not sure this is entirely true. According to Wikipedia's article on the Columbian Exchange:

  9. arildno

    arildno 11,265
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    A number of colony reports from the 16th to 18th century reported that many new colonizers succumbed to diseases during their first year or two.
    I read somewhere that in some parts of America, you had death rates among the first-generation colonizers from 60-80% !

    Now, if THAT lethality rate is spreading through the native gene pool on account of new EUROPEAN diseases, you begin to understand the differential disastrous effect of this meeting of (bacterial&human) cultures.

    Can't help you with any links, unfortunately, it's been years since I glanced somewhere this argument.

    But, it is a scientifically sound principle, and although there is no point denying the existence of relatively more lethal "European diseases" than "native American" diseases, I'm not sure we really need to posit that hypothesis in order to explain the results in a general, non-quantitative manner.

    But, just to remind you:

    Native Americans had their own brands of lice, rodents, mosquitoes and whatnot that weren't less disease-carrying than their european counterparts.
  10. arildno

    arildno 11,265
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    Furthermore, concerning domestic animals:

    Did the early colonizers bring over that many to begin with?

    There is a long, stressful sea voyage, with cramped space, bad water and a shortage problem for food.

    To bring over lots of, say, horses and cows represented a large financial investment that also would be very risky, not the least because the animals themselves might easily succumb on the voyage or in their new country.

    It would be more prudent for the EARLY colonizers to put faith in their OWN powers of adaptation and domestization, rather than spend their meagre resources of keeping alive large animals that probably woulD die, anyway.

    Thus, without having the empirical evidence for it, a suspect that large-scale importation of domestic animals from Europe would be a middle/late-colonization sub-project, rather than an early colonization project.

    But, by then, diseases will have spread from the Europeans to the natives by a variety of agents.

    Of course, a critical piece of evidence we would need to evaluate this would be what TYPES of new diseases ravaged the native population, when and where..
  11. Borek

    Staff: Mentor

    I think there is a problem with this line of thinking. Once early colonist become accustomed to the American diseases, these would be present in their population, but not dangerous enough to decimate it. However, scroll forward in time, remembering that number of people traveling in both directions grows exponentially. In one or two hundred years European gene pool is no longer safe and isolated, as more and more Americans arrive here - yet I don't remember hearing about any serious epidemy that could be attributed to diseases brought from America.
  12. arildno

    arildno 11,265
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    Good point I hadn't thought about.
    That sort of rules out man-borne diseases as primary native death agents for the colonizers..

    Still, colonizers DID succumb in large numbers of disease in the early days, but not later.

    It might be that what they actually died of were diseases carried by, for example mosquito specie that went extinct due to drainage of swamps and so on, and thus, would not inject a new disease into the European country in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
  13. Evo

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    I thought the early colonists mainly died of starvation and conditions caused by becoming very unhealthy due to starvation. The Europeans were not equipped or savvy enough to support themselves in the New World IIRC.

    Now I need a cup of coffee and to go dig up stuff to see if I remember my history correctly.

    This for now sheds some insight. Starvation, unclean water, malaria...

    Last edited: Jun 4, 2011
  14. Early colonizers did indeed bring over domesticated animals, horses and pigs were probably the most common. Horses helped defeat the indians in battle, wheras pigs spread many European diseases. There are many tales of a colonist being the first European to explore an area, bringing his livestock with him, and discovering it very densley populated and simply leaving, since several hundred men couldn't take down huge populations. Maybe a hundred years later, more Europeans come to discover ghost towns, small nomadic tribes etc. Almost definitely wiped out by diseases spread by livestock to humans.

    As far as domesticated animals go, Eurasia was VEEEEEERY different than the Americas.

    First, Eurasians had much more trade between themselves than did the Americans. There was no ''silk road'' leading from Mexico to Peru, and as such, the domesticated animals of one region of the Americas stayed there. There were no alpacas in Mexico, there were no Turkeys in Brazil. Wheras in Eurasia, domesticated animals quickly spread from China to England.

    Further, domesticated animals were simply a more important part of life for Eurasians than Native Americans. Native Americans didn't even have the mutation that would allow for adults to process lactose. Their large civilizations depended much more on agriculture relative to Eurasians.

    Eurasians had millenia to become accustomed to the diseases produced by proximity between people and animals, and the Native Americans simply didn't. It WAS a cleaner contienent.

    Further, Native American genetic diversity is much smaller than Eurasian, since they were all recently descended from a relatively small settler group within the last 15,000 years or so. Just look at the y-haplotype diversity in the New World vs. the Old World:


    Obviously the New World looks much more succeptible to disease than the Old World judging by how little genetic diversity there was.
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2011
  15. arildno

    arildno 11,265
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    I bow and scrape before superior arguments, given by others in the thread.
  16. Couple years ago I read:


    From a reader review of the book on that page:

    "Until the mid-twentieth century, when it was shown that penicillin was an effective treatment, syphilis was one of the most common diseases in Europe and North America. Though the point is still debated, it seems likely that syphilis was the one epidemic Native Americans were able to give to their conquerors in the face of smallpox, measles and the rest that devastated their populations. Unlike the European diseases, however, which were quickly and disproportionately deadly, syphilis, after its sudden and sweeping introduction, quickly mutated into a chronic illness. Though ultimately fatal in some cases, syphilis often allowed carriers to live for many decades after the initial infection, slowly tearing the body apart. It is the story of this disease that has become largely ignored in modern scholarship that Ms. Hayden tells in Pox.

    There is much of interest in this book, particularly in the first section. Here, Ms. Hayden recounts what is known of the introduction of syphilis into Europe, including a lively discussion indicating that Columbus himself may have been among the first syphilitics. Even more interesting is her description of the disease itself from the signs of initial infection to the often gradual, extensive and painful deterioration that accompanies the progress of the disease ending in madness and death. She notes that there are two key problems in an analysis of syphilis: the fact that syphilis is "the great imitator" (meaning that its extensive symptoms are often easily mistaken for other diseases, especially as these symptoms may occur decades after the initial infection) and the fact that patients admitting to syphilis was rare because of the social stigma attached. So understanding the full impact of syphilis on Western culture is problematic."

    No one worries much about syphilis anymore, so we forget that the time between Columbus's return from the New World and the discovery of penicillin was a 500 year nightmare with syphillis as the unkillable monster. She makes a persuasive case for Columbus and his crew as the agents of introduction of the spirochete into Europe.
  17. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    Montezuma's real revenge?
  18. Greg Bernhardt

    Staff: Admin

  19. Yes, in the sense that it was a devastating disease that went the other way: from The New World to Europe. The negative consequences of contact were not one sided at all. When Columbus sailed back to Europe the first time he was seriously ill with some unknown-to-him disease involving lesions and boils and general malaise. The symptoms were then carried from the city where he landed, by sailors and soldiers (in other words, the usual clients of brothels) to all the cities and countries of Europe, in a systematic chronological way that comes down to us in contemporary accounts. A few decades later it was all over and had taken firm hold. The works of Shakespeare were full of references to "the pox", especially in the form of a curse: "A pox upon you!", "A pox upon your house!" :references to syphilis.

    I highly recommend the book, even if you find yourself objecting to her case for any given historical figure having had syphilis, because in laying out her case she paints a picture of those times when syphilis was the dark cloud hanging over Western Civilization's head. In the late 1800's something like 15% of men were estimated to be infected. People endured useless, dangerous cures involving mercury vapor. Children had it passed to them at birth. None of which could be discussed openly. Did James Joyce have syphilis? It doesn't completely matter, because in describing his case she makes it clear what it would have been like for any married man with a career to have the disease in those times, under his circumstances.

    So, turning the OP question around: Were Europeans doomed to the 500 year syphilis epidemic?

    That's a pretty interesting question because we have no information on how prevalent it was in the Americas. Did he accidentally stumble onto the area of origin of the disease? Would it have spread from the Carib peoples around the world by other means? Had other Americans found a way of containing it? It's maddening how little we know. (Columbus had literate priests with him who were sympathetic to the natives and wrote letters back to Spain. I guess I would scour those letters to see if the priests asked the natives anything about this mystery disease.)
  20. Last edited: Jun 17, 2011
  21. HallsofIvy

    HallsofIvy 41,260
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    There is some question as to whether syphilis existed in Europe before 1492. Some writers assert that it did not and was brought back by Columbus's sailors, others say that most early references to Leprosy were actually references to syphilis. In any case, there were large outbreaks of syphilis in Europe immediately after the "voyages of discovery".
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