Age of Discovery: Pandora

In the Age of Discovery, Europeans were playing with fire. Every voyage of exploration risked bring back some new plague. From the New World, syphilis, probably typhus and rheumatoid arthritis. From India, cholera. HIV, recently, from Africa. Comparably important new pests attacking important crops and domesticated animals also arrived, such as grape phylloxera (which wiped out most of the vineyards of Europe) and potato blight ( an oomycete or ‘water mold’, from central Mexico).

If one of those plagues had been as potent as smallpox or falciparum malaria, you probably wouldn’t be reading this.

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25 Responses to Age of Discovery: Pandora

  1. MW says:

    Why wouldn’t we be reading it? Smallpox and other diseases destroyed 90% of the population of Mexico in roughly a century, yet today the population of that country is 5-8 times what it was at the time of Cortes, with a solid majority of the genetic pool being pre-Colombian.

    Why wouldn’t Eurasia’s population have rebounded similarly?

    • MawBTS says:

      He probably means that the plague would have set back human progress to the point where there’s no blogs, etc.

      Even if it retarded science and technology by only fifteen years, WordPress (for example) wouldn’t exist.

      • MW says:

        A fifteen year setback to human progress isn’t much to worry about. Anyway, if that’s all you’re talking about, it’s impossible to make a prediction. What if you’d eliminated WWI, for example? Does that accelerate modernity or retard it? You could make an argument either way.

        • Reading The Years of Salt and Rice by Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction novel that explores an alternate reality in which the Black Plague wipes out 99% of Europe instead of about a third. The upshot: powerful Buddhist and Islamic empires colonize the world and vie for supremacy. The author is a hard lefty, but a good writer with a powerful imagination; I’m enjoying it.

    • syonredux says:

      “Why wouldn’t we be reading it?”

      Well, if 90% of the population of Europe died off several centuries ago, I would probably not be here…..unless my ancestors were very, very lucky….

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      the population of Mexico is 5-8 times what it was because of European technology. if Europe had a 90% die-off a century or so before the industrial revolution i’d imagine that could have put off the industrial revolution a very long time – possibly permanently if there was a specific set of circumstances which led to it which were somehow negated by the die-off.

  2. James Miller says:

    Should the Europeans in the Age of Discovery have realized the risks they were taking?

    • Frau Katze says:

      Medicine as a field was next to useless until about the later part of the 19th century.

      People didn’t have foggiest idea of what caused diseases. They learned from observation that some diseases would you hit once only. One attack gave you immunity.

      I read a book about an outbreak of cholera in 1892 in Hamburg, Germany. By 1892 it was known that cholera was caused by a bug that traveled by water. Even earlier, the English doctor John Snow figured out that whatever it was, it was spread by water.

      Other parts of Germany set up sand filtration for their water. But, even at this late date, prominent doctors in Hamburg refused to believe this.

      It was surprising to read this. If a German doctor in 1892 refused to believe that cholera was something that spread by water, how can we blame the men involved in travelling to new parts of the world?

  3. Ursiform says:

    Potato blight wouldn’t have been in issue if potatoes hadn’t been brought back first.

  4. Rosenmops says:

    I thought the cause if rheumatoid arthritis was unknown.

    • gcochran9 says:

      leaves characteristic skeleton changes, which aren’t seen in European skeletons before 1600 or so. Are found in lower Mississippi valley going back several thousand years.

      • Colin McColinater says:

        Plenty of dietary changes since 1600. Potatoes, corn, sugar are all high GI foods. The change from hunting to wheat to sugar also saw increasingly poorer dental health.

      • Matthew Mckenzie says:

        Could be tobacco? It increases the risk over a non-smoker three times, as well as the severity of the symptoms. Background prevalence is pretty low so it’s possible that we wouldn’t have many skeletons to find in the absence of a big risk factor.

  5. We are about to launch a new ship toward an unexplored land: cross-species organ transplantation and introduction of human genes into animal sources of transplant organs. Endogenous viruses may jump from pigs to humans using transplant surgeons as the vector.

  6. akarlin says:

    Interesting alternative history premise. But I agree with the other commenters here that it wouldn’t have made a big difference apart from an interruption in technological progress of a few decades.

    Perhaps the main difference would have been a faster decline of the Mediterranean world relative to Northern Europe due to the former’s greater degree of urbanization.

    In Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, the Black Death kills 99% of the European population, but leaves the Muslim world and China unscathed, with the result that Europe turns into a central locus of Islamic power. In the 16th century, such a scenario would have resulted in the Ottoman Empire making much deeper and probably more permanent inroads into Europe.

    However, it is not really plausible that the Ottomans would have remained unaffected.

    • Frau Katze says:

      I’d wouldn’t write off Greg’s scenario completely. The Black Death killed lots of people but in that early era things were fairly stagnant, development wise. And it wasn’t so bad that society completely collapsed.

      If there had been something that bad in the Americas, that came over to Europe it would have set things back noticeably.

      But it’s also possible that the Europeans would have created severe quarantines, and slowed it down. Still, a lot of attention would be focused on that , and there would still would have been a lot of deaths.

  7. sinij says:

    In the Age of Discovery, Europeans got into too many places all at once. I don’t believe in luck, as this is unlikely explanation.

    • BB753 says:

      So what are the other possibilities?
      A boosted immune system after centuries of epidemics in Europe?
      Less virulent viruses in the Americas and elsewhere? (Because of the small number of local domesticated animal species among other explanations? )
      Long distance trips on ships making disease more easily containable?

      • ChrisA says:

        Possibly the genetic bottleneck that North American Indians went through made them more susceptible to diseases. So the greater genetic diversity of Europe provided more protection against any potential N.A, diseases. In terms of Europeans showing up everywhere at the same time, I think they struggled to live in many places in Africa and Asia due to the prevalence of native diseases there (like yellow fever and malaria) spread by native insects that could not live extensively in Europe due to different climate. Diseases that travelled by other vectors, like the plague, were already present because Asia, Africa and Europe were connected by land and also thousands of years of sea born trade.

  8. Rich Rostrom says:

    There is a brilliant alternate-history narrative called “Land of Red and Gold” which has been spun out on The premise is that back around 2000 BC, Australian natives developed agriculture. (The author, “Jared” is extremely knowledgeable about Australian botany and Neolithic plant domestication; I believe him when he says his scenario for this is plausible if unlikely.)

    This leads to actual civilizations developing in Australia. But (for the sake of the story) there is no effect whatever on the rest of the world until ships of the Dutch East Indies Company arrive in the 1600s. Then there is a parallel to the post-Columbian exchange – and because Australia has civilizations with cities and even some domesticated fowl, it is a source of epidemic diseases that ravage Eurasia. With major effects on the Thirty Years War, etc.

  9. Patrick L. Boyle says:

    I don’t know about typhus being an import from the New World. I just looked it up on Wikipedia and it claims that the first likely outbreak was in 1489 in the War between the Spanish and the Moors. If that’s right that is just a few years to early.

    • gcochran9 says:

      The closest relative is an organism that infects flying squirrels, eastern US. Here’s the way to think about it we have lots of for-sure examples of typhus that postdate 1492, we have at most one not-so-sure example that just barely predates 1492. Keep in mind that it can be really hard to correctly interpret accounts of ancient epidemics.

      I could be wrong. Way to resolve it: check for typhus DNA in bodies of soldiers that died in that siege.

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