NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Some Epidemics Were Native To The New World

January 9, 2001

The discovery and settlement of the New World by Europeans was a disaster for indigenous peoples in many ways. In particular, Europeans exposed Indians to such diseases as typhus and smallpox -- Old World illnesses to which they had no resistance.

But some of the massive epidemics that killed a large percentage of the indigenous population in Mexico may not have come from Europe, according to new studies.

  • In 1520, an epidemic of imported smallpox killed 40 percent of central Mexico's native population in less than a year.
  • But a sickness that many scientists had assumed to be typhus, smallpox or another Old World disease killed about 800,000 people beginning in 1545, and more than 2 million beginning in 1576.
  • New studies suggest these epidemics were types of hemorrhagic fever -- caused by a native virus.

In the January issue of the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, pathologist Rodolfo Acuna-Soto, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, examines historical records about the 1576 epidemic, including writings and autopsies by Spain's chief doctor -- who described a group of symptoms unfamiliar to him, but which doctors now recognize as classic hemorrhagic fever.

A second study, in the journal Medical History, also proposes that the 1545 and 1576 epidemics were really hemorrhagic fever, that may have run rampant after Indians began clearing land for wheat in addition to traditional crops, forcing humans into closer contact with virus-carrying rodents.

In addition, the epidemics coincided with brief wet spells in central Mexico during the worst North American drought of the last millennium, when the rodent population would have exploded, spreading the disease.

In both epidemics, indigenous peoples died in far greater numbers than the Spaniards, probably because the natives were poor and starving, and therefore far more vulnerable.

Source: Alexandra Witze, "Spanish may not be to blame for epidemics," Dallas Morning News, January 8, 2001.


Browse more articles on International Issues