Introduced epidemics - this is how microbes can destroy entire peoples

Introduced epidemics - this is how microbes can destroy entire peoples

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Mass deaths due to introduced epidemics using the example of America

"The greatest human catastrophe in history, far greater than the disaster of black death in medieval Europe." The historian David Cook on European epidemics in America.

In 1492 Columbus entered the Caribbean with his team. Less than a hundred years later, 90 percent of Native Americans were wiped out. Genocide, rape, enslavement, displacement and wars of the Spaniards played a significant part in what was the largest mass destruction of human life in history to date. But the invaders would never have been able to subdue an entire continent so freely if they had not had invisible helpers at their side: the viruses and bacteria brought in by the Europeans gathered the majority of Native Americans and hurried ahead of the Spaniards. Flu, measles or smallpox eradicated entire civilizations, many years before the conquerors reached them - in the Amazon as well as in Honduras.

The death of the Tainos

When Columbus discovered Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1492, an estimated 500,000 Tainos lived there. The entire coast was full of villages and smaller towns. A large part of his team fell ill on Columbus' second trip in 1493. In a few years, half of his 500 men died in Hispaniola. The diseases were presumably typhoid, whooping cough and flu.

The introduced diseases continued to rage among the indigenous population: in 1508 the population of the Tainos was estimated at only 60,000 people. Ten years later, only 18,000 natives remained. Then the measles were brought in and took these survivors down to around 1,000 survivors. Ultimately, not a single Taino was left in 1542.

Killer germs in Mesoamerica

In 1519 the Hidalgo Hernando Cortés came to Mexico with a few hundred Spaniards in a highly developed empire with the center Tenochtitlan, one of the largest cities in the world at that time with more than 300,000 inhabitants.

The colonial heroic story tells of how a tiny bunch of Spanish soldiers brought this great power to its knees in Central America. On the one hand, it is kept secret that tens of thousands of indigenous warriors joined the Spaniards, who were anxious to free themselves from the Aztec yoke. On the other hand, epidemics brought in preceded the conquerors and took many locals there.
A year after the arrival of the Spaniards, smallpox raged in Mexico for the first time. In just two months, around half of Tenochtitlan’s inhabitants died. In less than two years, the disease destroyed up to eight million people - the infrastructure collapsed.

In the Noche Triste (Spanish for Sad Night) in 1519, the Aztecs had risen against the Spaniards and killed many of the invaders. The survivors fled to Tlaxcala, which was 50 kilometers from Tenochtitlan. Cortés men would probably no longer have a chance to survive against thousands of trained Aztec warriors. But it was then that smallpox broke out in the valley of Mexico. The Spaniards saw the plague as a sign of God for their victory. The smallpox not only killed every second inhabitant of the city, but also the Aztec emperor, Cuitláhuac, who had built up a quick war alliance.

The epidemic broke the morale of the indigenous warriors. They saw that the disease destroyed the Aztecs but spared the Spaniards and saw in it a curse from their gods who had left them. When the Spaniards marched into the city, a chronicler noted: "The streets were so filled with dead and sick that our men walked over nothing but bodies."
Smallpox also spread to Guatemala, the Maya empire. The great Mayan cities were deserted, but the Maya still had a reputation for being relentless warriors. But they also destroyed smallpox just like the Aztecs, so that ten years later an officer from Cortés quickly took over the Mayan areas. According to tradition, half of the Indians in Honduras died of an epidemic between 1530 and 1532.

In 1532, the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado wrote to the King of Spain: "All over New Spain (Mexico) there is a disease that is said to be measles that kills the Indians and floods the country, leaving it completely empty lets. ”In Central America, in addition to smallpox and measles, typhoid fever, bubonic plague and diarrhea also raged.

In today's Honduras, there were an estimated 600,000 people living when Columbus arrived. In 1550 there were only 32,000 indigenous people. This corresponds to a loss of around 95 percent. It is estimated that 400,000 people died from diseases.

Historical mass extinction

Historians' estimates vary, but when Columbus arrived in 1492, approximately 4.4 million people lived in North America, approximately 21 million in and around Mexico, six million in the Caribbean, and another six million in Central America . In 1543, none of the indigenous people on the main Caribbean islands such as Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico were alive - six million dead in 50 years. A few survived in precarious existence on smaller islands spared by the plagues.

In 1531 the measles reached the continent and claimed countless lives. In North America, the microbes caused their destruction before the European conquerors entered the country. They found only a sparsely populated continent.

Between 1539 and 1541, Hernando de Soto explored the southeastern part of the United States. He described an Indian civilization called Coosa on the territory of today's states Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee with about 50,000 people. 20 years later, the Europeans came across abandoned houses and overgrown gardens. In the Mississippi Valley, de Soto found 49 cities, a century later the French explorer La Salle reports only seven neglected settlements.

Europeans had hardly settled in New England, when an epidemic destroyed up to three quarters of the indigenous population. In 1690, smallpox and measles raged on huge terrain from the east coast to the Mississippi.

Plague centers and cursed cities

The conquerors believed that the Amazon region was inhabited by only a few hunters and gatherers. Until recently, Europeans thought that ruined cities in the rainforest of Mesoamerica were legacies of old pre-Columbian cultures. However, new studies show that they only ended after the arrival of the Spaniards.

Natives in Mexico, Venezuela or Brazil are full of sunken cities with a curse, evil spirits, and they are afraid to enter the areas where these cities are said to be located. Despised by the colonial masters as superstition, on the other hand, it is traditional real history, not unlike in this country the collective memory of the plague.

Invisible evil spirits

The locals died for reasons that were inexplicable at the time, like the flies, and offered bizarre sights: their limbs twitched, bloody sputum came out of the orifices and there was no help. The last survivors did the only medically correct thing: they left the sites of their highly developed cultures and fled far into the woods - away from the "evil spirits" - away from the viruses and bacteria.

Lack of immunity

Unlike the Eurasians, the people on the double continent had not developed immunity to the onslaught of pathogens because they had been isolated from Eurasia for at least 13,000 years. Most of our viruses and bacteria originally caused epidemics in animals and adapted to humans when they domesticated the animals. Conversely, in thousands of years of livestock farming, the livestock farmers' immune systems adapted to the pathogens.

With the Spaniards came horses and dogs, later cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens. The wandering rat, a constant stowaway on the ships, also entered American soil and with it a whole microcosm of deadly microbes.

Helpless medicine

Not only did the Natives have no immunity to European epidemics, they also had no methods to deal with them. This was by no means due to the fact that indigenous medicine was "primitive": Mayas and Mexica, Toltec or Incas and also the peoples of North America knew innumerable medicinal plants and herbal medicine, the active ingredients of which can be found today in pharmaceuticals.

In Mayan medicine alone, at least 900 plants were used as medicinal herbs, including aloe, agave, papaya, chilli and passion flowers such as saffron mallow. But the Natives were helpless against the new epidemics, in the Andes and the Amazon, Missouri and Mexico.

Viruses and bacteria even spread rituals to cure diseases: epidemics that afflicted the entire mass of people were considered punishments for wrongdoing by the gods, and the natives tried to compensate for this through prayers and sacrifices.

The indigenous people also practiced shamanic involvement of the sick in the community. This was quite successful as a psychosomatic method. Social integration strengthens the body's defenses and releases hormones that alleviate the course of diseases. Traditional sweat baths, which the natives regarded as a spiritual cleansing, ensure improved blood circulation. As sensible as such methods are to activate the body's self-healing, they were fatal to the new pathogens that spread through smear and droplet infections. These collaborative actions made it easy for them. Isolating the sick from the healthy could have slowed the epidemics, but this was unknown in Indian medicine.

The cause remained closed to the locals

Nor did the indigenous people often see the connection between the epidemics and the European conquerors. Plague waves reached tribes in the rainforest or in the swamps of Alabama months or years before those affected saw even a single Spaniard. In 1520, for example, smallpox was rampant among the tarasks in western Mexico, killing the high priest, nobles and countless ordinary people. It was only a year later that the Spaniards met the culture. The transmitters were ambassadors from the Aztecs who wanted to forge an alliance against the Spaniards with the Tarasques.

In 1520 smallpox went around in Tenochtitlan. Many of the sick died of hunger, others had pustules on only a few parts of the body. Some lost their eyes, others burned the spots on their faces, others weakened. There were no Spaniards in the city in this first wave of smallpox.

Smallpox conquered the Inca empire

The conquest of the giant Inca empire in the Andes by the swineherd Francisco Pizarro and a bunch of cutthroat looks even more magical than Cortes invasion of Mexico. But Pizarro's robberies did not come alone. In 1524 smallpox raged in the central Andes. Hundreds of thousands of people died in Ecuador, including the Crown Prince. This sparked a war for the heir to the throne, which weakened the empire and enabled Pizarro to conquer it from 1533. Probably this first smallpox epidemic wiped out half of the people in the central Andes.

The main victims were the high cultures

The Spanish found it particularly easy to conquer the high cultures of the Incas and Aztecs. Centuries later, they had not subjugated hunters and gatherers in the Amazon basin, and a few thousand comants scattered across an area the size of Central Europe made it impossible for the Spaniards to advance north beyond southern Texas. Even more: After they took over the horse from the Spaniards, they raided far into central Mexico, looted Spanish farms, stole horses and cattle, even haunted cities without the Spanish colonial power being able to control them.

A major cause of the fact that technically less well-equipped natives, the numbers of which comprised only a tiny fraction of the high civilizations of Tenochtitlan or the Andes, offered the Spaniards more than just parole, while the conquerors hand-stroked the millions in Mexico and Peru were the epidemics .

The hunters and gatherers lived in clans and small groups and had little contact with the Spaniards and their animals outside of their raids. If the member of a group became infected, the disease usually only wiped out this small group and could not spread further. Incidentally, this also applies to the plague bacterium, which has always been around rodents in the steppes of Central Asia, but never caused apocalyptic devastation for the shepherds there.

In the metropolises of Mexico and the Andes, however, a domino effect set in: masses of people died directly from smallpox, measles, typhoid or flu. The dead and sick were missing as agricultural workers. This was followed by a famine after the plague.

Which diseases raged worst?

The biggest killer of the Natives was smallpox in the years 1519 to 1528. Probably 35 percent of the total population in Central and South America died of it - a similar extent as in the big waves of the plague in Europe. In addition, there were infectious diseases such as flu, measles, typhoid, mumps, diphtheria and bubonic and lung plague. From 1576 to 1591 smallpox once again claimed victims and destroyed approximately 50 percent of the already shrunk populations.

It took around 100 years for European epidemics to become endemic to America. Only 10 percent of the total domestic population had survived. The mortality rate probably decreased due to mixing: the mestizo had a stronger immune system than the pure indigenous people.

Defenseless against measles

The Indians not only had less resistance to measles, their genetic bottleneck also ensured that they spread uninhibitedly. All American Natives come from very few immigrants from Asia who populated the continent at some point 11,000 to 14,000 years ago. If measles sufferers have the same genes, their immune systems are very similar and the viruses can spread freely.

Cattle and viruses

A key to why the viruses and bacteria of Europe wiped out the American natives, but not the pathogens of America the Europeans, lies in animal husbandry. The Indians domesticated only the dog, in North America the turkey, in South America the guinea pig and the warty duck, as well as the llama and the alpaca.

In Europe, however, cattle breeding was a central part of society, from pigs, cattle, sheep and goats to donkeys and horses to geese, ducks and chickens. For thousands of years, Europeans lived closely with these animals and were constantly exposed to their germs.

Most epidemics that afflict humans are mutated pathogens that originally affected animals. Smallpox, for example, arose from a mutated cowpox virus, and rinderpest migrated to people and became measles; Tuberculosis is probably also from cows, malaria was common in chickens and ducks, whooping cough in pigs or dogs. All of these pathogens not only adapt to humans, conversely, people in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa also adapt to the pathogens. The Americans, on the other hand, were completely helpless. They have never had a chance to develop resistance to measles, chickenpox, mumps, smallpox, flu, cold, tuberculosis, yellow fever or typhoid in tens of thousands of years because they had no contact with the pathogens.

When the Europeans lived in ever larger cities, these old animal diseases broke out everywhere. Religious writings of antiquity overflow with descriptions of terrible epidemics that were considered divine punishments. But no illness is 100 percent fatal. Those whose genes helped survive the epidemics always survived over the millennia, and they passed them on to their descendants.

In America, on the other hand, as far as we know, there were no animal epidemics of this magnitude before Columbus arrived. They lived in cities as big as the Europeans, but not so long and so networked that common diseases could spread to the same extent.

The brutal natural selection that ultimately led to resistance to the pathogens lasted for thousands of years in Europe. In South and Central America, on the other hand, it concentrated on a few years from 1494 to around 1650. In North America, cultures that previously had little contact with Europeans fell victim to the epidemics in the 19th century: smallpox eradicated within a few years Mandan who lived on the upper reaches of the Missouri.

Collapse of civilization

Douglas Preston, who co-discovered the "White City" in the rainforest of Honduras, presumably wiped out by an epidemic, explains the consequences that it would have for Indian societies if 90 percent of the people die from epidemics.

Preston shows what a pure 90 percent death rate statistic means for survivors. The plague claimed between 30 and 60 percent of the population in Europe. This catastrophe saw contemporary witnesses as the demise of the world. But the plague did not destroy civilization in Europe.

A death rate of 90 percent, however, destroys civilizations, languages, historical developments, religions and cultures. It destroys the transmission of traditions and techniques from one generation to the next. According to Preston, the survivors are cut off from the past of their culture, their stories, their music, their songs, they are torn from their identities.

Preston advises everyone to imagine what it would be like if only one out of 19 people from our personal environment survived. You would see fathers, grandfathers, neighbors, friends and acquaintances die in a terrifying way. One would see the fields neglected, the cities rotting, the buried dead lying on the streets and being eaten by dogs. Anything valuable would lose its value.

In our environment there are various professions, such as a doctor, a priest, a scientist, a civil servant, a teacher, an accountant, a merchant, a librarian, a carpenter, a farmer, a farmer, a hunter, a cook, a seamstress, a shoemaker, a historian, a physicist, a biologist and an architect. After such an epidemic, for example, only one cook would be left. Not only is the number of people required to rebuild what has been destroyed missing, but knowledge about it is also irretrievably lost.

As Preston reports, this destruction spanned cities, kingdoms, civilizations, and entire continents. This inferno, according to the author, destroyed thousands of civilizations from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, from New England to California, from the Amazon rainforest to the tundra of Hudson Bay. Preston said it was the greatest catastrophe humanity has ever faced.

Vaccinate against horror

Today there is an efficient vaccination program for smallpox. The last known smallpox cases occurred in Somalia in 1977. In 1980 the World Health Organization declared the world free from smallpox. Had the American Natives been vaccinated against smallpox, measles, flu and the other diseases new to them, millions of people would have survived - the history of the world would have been different.

The Europeans could never have conquered the continent so easily and prevail against a large indigenous majority in all countries of Central and South America. Incas, Mayas and Aztecs, Tainos, Tarasks and thousands of other peoples would maintain their traditions today like the Hindus in India, the Buddhists in Thailand or the Shintos in Japan.

Traditional eyewitness accounts

A surviving report by survivor Maya Francisco Hernández Arana Xajilá describes the atrocities that currently prevailed: “At first they developed a cough, nosebleeds and cystitis. The death toll rose rapidly, it was terrible. Prince Vakaki Ahmak also died. Slowly, very slowly, heavy shadows and black night fell over our fathers and grandfathers and over us, my sons. The stench of the dead was great. After our fathers and grandfathers died, half of the people fled to the fields. The dogs and vultures devoured the bodies. The death rate was high. So we became orphans, my sons, when we were young. All of us. We were born to die. "
(Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Preston, Douglas: Lost City of the Monkey God, Head of Zeus Ltd, 2017
  • Ursula Thiemer-Sachse: The great suffering (accessed: July 8, 2019),
  • Seler, Eduard: Some chapters from the historical work of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, 2014
  • Robert Koch Institute: Smallpox (accessed: July 8, 2019),
  • Guilmet, George M. / Boyd, Robert T. / Whited, David L. / et al .: The Legacy of Introduced Disease: The Southern Coast Salish, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 1991,

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