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Biology vs. Military: Making the Call

In the past, it has been generally accepted that the Europeans who first came over to the Americas conquered and controlled the native people through powerful weapons, higher intelligence and overall superiority. These accepted perceptions allowed many Europeans to believe that they had the right to uproot millions of people from their own land and change the very nature of their lifestyles. But what if it turns out that these conquests had very little to do with military prowess, and instead were greatly facilitated by pure biological forces? Fortunately, many in modern times have examined these issues closely and discussed the impact of a disease epidemic that wiped out a large percentage of the indigenous population.

When the Spanish first landed in the Americas in the 16th century, 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.

To understand how smallpox had the power to become such a force in dwindling the native population of the Americas, let's first look at the concept of disease. When germs are newly introduced into a previously unexposed population,they frequently kill all but the most resistant people at a relatively rapid rate. 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 produce new generations and a 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, causing most of them to no longer affect the majority of the European population: the people had become immune. 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. They had been in biological isolation since crossing the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska (meaning that they hadn't come into contact with any humans other than themselves.) This fact alone meant that they were extremely susceptible to the Europeans' diseases because they had never before been exposed to them, and had never before had the chance to develop defenses against them.

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 Cort$#233;s, 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 Cortés was ill from the odors which assailed his nostrils."

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.

The spread of disease had lasting social consequences for the Americas as well. 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. Before explorers ever got past the coastline regions of the US, many native americans had already been killed by the diseases. 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 and in Central and South America. Peru and Chile, for example, had the largest and wealthiest populations with somewhere between 9 million and 14 million citizens, but after the small pox epidemic in the 1520s, these numbers dropped significantly to around 1 million! And, only a few short years later, 94% of the population was gone. These numbers are truly astounding, and help to make it clear just how much impact these severe biological factors had on the conquest of the Americas' indigenous people.

Because of such a large number of people dying in such relatively short time frames, disease did not only decrease the numbers dramatically, but it also greatly affected all remaining survivors. 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, as they were looking for new deities to believe in and new medical practices to rely on. With this kind of "low morale," natives turned to the Spanish missionaries. Upon seeing how the Spaniards were unaffected from the same diseases that was wiping out their populations, the indigenous people were easily convinced that these new foreigners had better answers than their own, and were receptive to the missionaries' new intellectual powers of explanation and control. 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.

The wide-reaching effects of the epidemic are hard to ignore. 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, which raises some very important questions in the examination of the Europeans' dominance over native cultures: What impact did the Smallpox epidemic have on the colonization of America? What if there had been no disease to kill off such a large number of native people? Would they still have succeeded in taking away so much? It is this way of thinking that many historians have adopted when looking at the colonization of the Americas, in an attempt to bring greater truth to their understanding of the situation.

The statistics certainly make it possible to believe that successful colonization owed more to biological pathogens than it did to traditional weapons of the Europeans. Viewing history from this revisionist angle has powerful implications on how humans perceive racial superiority and their own right to conquer other groups of people. After all, every human being is susceptible to disease... even you.

The Team


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Pontiac's War: They didn't recall this one!
Rebecca - Iroquois Federation - The founding fathers?
Rebecca - Massive wall of falling water!
Making A Difference - Murder most foul and an innocent Indian