Montezuma’s Revenge

Everybody knows that the Amerindians were devastated by new infectious diseases after Columbus discovered America and made it stick.   Smallpox, falciparum malaria, yellow fever,  bubonic plague, cholera,  measles, whooping cough, etc : by some estimates,  the Amerindian population dropped by about 90%,  worse than the Black Plague, which only killed off half of Europe.   Naturally, you wonder what ailments the Americas exported to the rest of the world.

We know of two for sure.  First,  syphilis:  the first known epidemic was in 1495, in  Naples, during a French invasion.  By 1520 it had reached Africa and China.

From the timing of the first epidemic, and the apparent newness of the disease, many have suspected that it was an import from the New World.  Some, like Bartolome de las Casas,  had direct knowledge: Las Casas was in Seville in 1493, his father and uncle sailed with Columbus on the second voyage, and he himself traveled to the New World in 1502, where he spent most of the rest of his life working with the Amerindians.  Ruiz Diaz de Isla, a Spanish physician,  reported treating some of Columbus’s crew for syphilis, and that he had observed its rapid spread in Barcelona.

I have seen someone object to this scenario, on the grounds that the two years after Columbus’s return surely couldn’t have been long enough to generate a major outbreak.   I think maybe that guy doesn’t get out much. It has always looked plausible,  considering paleopathological evidence (bone changes) and the timing of the first epidemic. Recent analysis shows that some American strains of pinta (a treponemal skin disease) are  genetically closest to the venereal strains.   I’d say the Colombian theory is pretty well established, at this point.

Interestingly, before the genetic evidence, this was one of the longest-running disputes among historians. As far as I can tell,  part of the problem was (and is) that many in the social sciences routinely apply Ockham’s razor in reverse.  Simple explanations are bad, even when they fit all the facts.    You see this in medicine, too.

The story of tungiasis, chigger flea infestation, is simpler and clearer.  Female chigger fleas burrow into the skin (often the big toe)  and start releasing eggs, which can lead to infection,  sometimes even to gangrene.  It looks as if they originated in the West Indies, and were inadvertently spread to the mainland by the Spanish.   Tungiasis hit the crew of the Santa Maria.  Much later, the chigger flea was introduced to Africa,  carried in ballast by a ship from Brazil:  the Thomas Mitchell, in 1873. It spread all through tropical Africa, and  made it to India and Pakistan in 1899.  It causes quite a bit of trouble even today, particularly in poor areas – specifically, people without shoes.

There are two other diseases that are suspected of originating in the Americas.  The first is typhus, gaol fever, caused by a Rickettsial organism and usually spread by lice.  Sometimes it recurs after many years, in a mild form called Brill’s disease, rather like chickenpox and  shingles.  This means that typhus  is always waiting in the wings:  if the world gets sufficiently messed up, it will reappear.

Typhus shows up most often in war, usually in cool countries.   There is a claim that there was a clear epidemic in Granada in 1489, which would definitely predate Columbus, but descriptions of disease symptoms by premodern physicians are amazingly unreliable.  The first really reliable description seems to have been by Fracastoro, in 1546 (according to Hans Zinsser in Rats, Lice, and History).  The key hint is the existence of a very closely related organism in American flying squirrels.

Thinking about it, I have the impression that the legions of the Roman Republic didn’t have high casualties due to infectious disease, while that was the dominant cause of death in more recent European armies, up until the 20tth century.  If smallpox, measles, syphilis, bubonic plague, perhaps typhus, simply hadn’t arrived yet, this makes sense.   Falciparum malaria wasn’t much of a factor in northern Italy until Imperial times…

The second possibly American disease is rheumatoid arthritis.   We don’t even know that it has an infectious cause – but we do know that it causes characteristic skeletal changes, and that no clear-cut pre-Columbian rheumatoid skeletons are known from the Old World, while a number have been found in the lower South.  To me, this makes some infectious cause seem likely: it would very much be worth following this up with the latest molecular genetic methods.

American crops like maize and potatoes more than canceled the demographic impact of syphilis and typhus.  But although the Old World produced more dangerous pathogens than the Americas, due to size, longer time depth of agriculture, and more domesticated animals, luck played a role, too. Something as virulent as smallpox or falciparum malaria could have existed in the Americas, and if it had,  Europe would have been devastated.

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31 Responses to Montezuma’s Revenge

  1. dearieme says:

    “Columbus discovered America and made it stick.” Do you mean “sick”?

    Some historians of the Dark Ages seem to feel that one reason for the collapse of Romano-British civilisation to the German invaders was a plague that picked selectively on the R-Bs. Is there much known about this hypothesis?

  2. Cubano says:

    The last paragraph answered most of my questions of why was it the reverse in the case of Africa, where the African diseases kept Europeans out for a long time. Of the factors you mentioned, why is the time passed since the adoption of agriculture important? How does it affect the dangerousness of the diseases in a population?

    • Anonymous Coward says:

      Agriculture → higher population densities → makes it easier for pathogens to spread and thrive.

      • billswift says:

        Also agriculture means more contact with livestock which results in more diseases transferred from animals to humans. Malaria and influenza for example started in livestock and spread to humans. Note that most only become really dangerous when they start being transmitted directly between humans, which is why many predicted influenza strains fade out, they don’t make that transition.

      • billswift says:

        I haven’t read anything about where malaria originated, but I understood it was a major problem, even in rural areas, because cattle were a major reservoir for it. (Can’t remember where I read it, it was a long time ago.)

  3. Karl Narveson says:

    The Athenian strategy at the start of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) was to crowd behind defensive walls, let the enemy ravage their cropland, and wait out the siege while bringing in provisions by sea. It was working till a pestilence broke out. Hans Zinsser (Rats, Lice, and History, 1935) thought this celebrated “plague of Athens” was typhus. A conference at the University of Maryland Medical Center came to the same conclusion in 1999: Plague of Athens

    • gcochran9 says:

      Zinsser had an unusual way of expressing himself, regarding the Plague of Athens: ” There is, in my opinion, practically no reason for assuming that the disease in question was a variety of typhus. “

      • Karl Narveson says:

        I stand corrected. It’s been a long time since I read Zinsser.
        That leaves the University of Maryland conference, but the participants may simply not have been aware of the closely related organism in American flying squirrels.

  4. Tschafer says:

    Yes, it’s really remarkable how much Hans Zinsser got right in RLH, that was later totally forgotten or denied. In some odd way, this ties in with GC’s claim that Rober Howard was actually more accurate concerning human pre-history than Boas or Margaret Mead. Of course, this is hardly a cooincidence; Zinsser was a doctor, and Howard was a storyteller – Boas and Mead were professional liars.

  5. Morley says:

    I think it was Greg or Paul Ewald who mentioned in an article that he believes eventually most cancers will be discovered to be caused by infectious pathogens, which several decades ago was not believed to be responsible at all for cancer.

    A new study suggests a significant number of cancers are caused by infection:

    “‘One in six cancers worldwide are caused by infection'”

  6. as says:

    Thinking about it, I have the impression that the legions of the Roman Republic didn’t have high casualties due to infectious disease, while that was the dominant cause of death in more recent European armies, up until the 20tth century. If smallpox, measles, syphilis, bubonic plague, perhaps typhus, simply hadn’t arrived yet, this makes sense. Falciparum malaria wasn’t much of a factor in northern Italy until Imperial times…

    Where did smallpox and measles and malaria come from then? When did they come?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Malaria came from Africa, probably. There are old primate versions. Smallpox, dunno: I have heard people suggest viral infections of cows and monkeys as ancestral. Measles is derived from rinderpest, probably less than two thousand years ago.

      Falciparum malaria has been around for a while, but wasn’t found near Rome during the Republic. It seems to have gradually moved north in Italy during classical times, maybe because the range of the key mosquito species was increasing. By early medieval times it was a big problem around Rome.

      Smallpox probably did not exist in classical Greece: there is no clear description in the literature of the time. It may have arrived in the Greco-Roman world in 165 AD, as the Antonine plague.

      • Sid says:

        The Iliad opens with Apollo scourging the Achaian army with a plague. On the whole, though, plagues and diseases in the Classical Age tend to come off as either punishments from the gods (Oedipus Rex) or evidence that anything could happen. You might not expect disease, but it could end you at once and without warning.

        By the Middle Ages, however, artists tend to depict disease as omnipresent and proof that the world is demon-haunted. It wouldn’t surprise me if horrible plagues became more endemic in the Middle Ages than they were in Classical times.

        • Ben Gunn says:

          I read
          scurvy was a plague problem back in the day. There was some understanding cabbage or kale worked against it.

  7. erica says:

    Do we know the origin of mumps?

  8. j says:

    Regarding Roman legions’s lack of losses by epidemic diseases, I think the reason is the excellent organization of the legions and its camps. The camps were designed in a superb way, with latrine areas, with supervised drinking water source, and in general legions were well managed and provisioned, and discipline was incredibly strict (in current terms). Also the City of Rome has a tremendous sewage disposal system (The Cloaca Maxima under the Forum) and a vast aqueduct system that provided running water to the city. European cities and armies have not yet reached Roman public health standards in WWI.

    Regarding rheumatoid arthritis, I know nothing but let me copy a note in today’s HaAretz leftist fishwrap: “a team of Israeli scientists from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot may have achieved a breakthrough in treating autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn’s, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue rather than invading germs.

    The scientists managed to “trick” the immune systems of mice into targeting an enzyme known as MMP-9, one of a family of proteins essential for processes including healing wounds. When the enzyme gets out of control, however, MMP-9 facilitates autoimmune diseases as well as the spread of cancer.”

  9. david says:

    Re: Rheumatoid arthritis

    I remember reading over fifty years ago that free-living amoebae had been found in the joints of people afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis. The primary proponent of the idea that this is the cause of the disease seems to be this guy

    Other researchers are claiming a cure rate of 80% for treatment with the appropriate drugs. Could this be another case like helicobacter pylori and ulcers where an effective treatment is being overlooked?

    • billswift says:

      You might find Paul Ewald’s book Plague Time (it was also printed under another title that I can’t remember off hand), interesting. He discussed evidence that many chronic diseases, including heart attacks and arterial plaques may have microbial causes.

  10. dave chamberlin says:

    I don’t believe the book has yet been written that documents the impact of disease from classical times up to the present. It could be one of those rare big history books which come along very seldomly that by themselves shed new light on an important element of human history. It anybody qualifies to write that book it’s you Cochran.

  11. j says:

    Paul, the Road Back posits the theory that the cause is some mycoplasma. It is very difficult to discover those small skinless beasts, they are in most cell cultures, so the idea is plausible.

  12. j.plenk says:

    What about alimentory factors-much of the post-columbian populationgrowth is associated to the introduction of the humble potatoe to Eurasia- and some of the substances it produces to defend itself against being eaten ( f.i. solanin) are suspected to enhance joint inflammation, just as gliadin from cereals is linked to some cases of M.Crohn etc….adaption to modern food sources is slow!

  13. Pingback: Rheumatoid Arthritis | West Hunter

  14. saintonge235 says:

    Mr. Cochrane, I added your rheumatoid arthritis theory to Wikipedia’s article on the disease. Removed with hours.

    “Still, a man hears what he wants to,
    “And disregards the rest.”

  15. anonymous coward says:

    Tobacco use and helminths in hunter-gather populations — Ed Hagen has published a few papers on this. I sometimes wonder if it has effects on other parasites/diseases. I recently bought some cigars, and every time I puff one the pain in my shoulder (rheumatoid arthritis?) goes away for most of a day. It seems to require the significantly high does of nicotine that cigars provide. (I never inhale by the way.) I only mention this because tobacco is a sort of Montezuma’s Revenge of a different sort, but also perhaps it’s use originally developed in the Americas in response to diseases in the Americas – or so I am now inclined to wonder.

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