09/07/05 - germs in the new world

In today's  excerpt - the profound role that infectious disease played in the European conquest of the New World:

"Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords. ... For instance, in 1519, Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico with 600 Spaniards, to conquer the fiercely militaristic Aztec Empire with a population of many millions. ... What gave the Spaniards a decisive advantage was smallpox, which reached Mexico in 1520 with one infected slave arriving from Spanish Cuba. The resulting epidemic proceeded to kill nearly half the Aztecs, including Emperor Cuitlahuac. Aztec survivors were demoralized by the mysterious illness that killed Indians and spared Spaniards, as if advertising the Spaniards' invincibility. By 1618, Mexico's initial population of about 20 million had plummeted to about 1.6 million. ...

"... archaeological excavations, and scrutiny of descriptions left by the very first European explorers on our coasts, now suggest an initial number of around 20 million [North American] Indians [circa 1492]. For the New World as a whole, the Indian population decline in the century or two following Columbus's arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95 percent.

"The main killers were Old World germs to which the Indians had never been exposed, and against which they therefore had neither immune nor genetic resistance. Smallpox, measles, influenza, and typhus competed for top rank among the killers. As if these had not been enough, diptheria, malaria, mumps, pertussia, plague, tuberculosis, and yellow fever came up close behind. ... For instance, the population of Hispaniola declined from around 8 million, when Columbus arrived in AD 1492 to zero by 1535."


Jared M. Diamond


Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 1999, 1997 by Jared Diamond


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