Skip to comments.Europeans may not have been deadly as thought to Aztecs
Posted on 10/15/2006 7:13:00 AM PDT by SwinneySwitch
MEXICO CITY Here's what history tells us about the Spanish conquest of this country: Armed with modern weapons and old world diseases, several hundred Spanish soldiers toppled the Aztec empire in 1521. And by the end of the century, the invaders' guns, steel and germs had wiped out 90 percent of the natives.
It's a key piece of the "Black Legend," the tales of atrocities committed by the Spanish Inquisition and colonizers of the New World.
But it may be just that legend, according to Rodolfo Acuña-Soto, a Harvard-trained epidemiologist.
He argues that an unknown indigenous hemorrhagic fever may have killed off the bulk of Mexico's native population, which plummeted from an estimated 22 million in 1519, when the Spaniards arrived, to 2 million in 1600.
And he warns that the fever which the Aztecs called "cocoliztli" in their native Nahuatl language still may be lurking in remote rural areas of Mexico.
Not everyone buys the new theory. But Acuña-Soto, who spent 12 years of poring over colonial archives, census data, graveyard records and autopsy reports, is convinced many historians are wrong about what killed the Aztecs.
"The problem with history is that it's very ideological," he said. "In this case, it was a beautiful way of accusing the Spaniards of unimaginable cruelties and of decimating the population of Mexico."
Spanish colonizers were far from blameless, he quickly points out. By forcing the Indians into slave-like conditions and malnutrition, they made them more vulnerable to the disease, he said.
"Of course, there's a terrible story of cruelty and disease that killed a huge amount of indigenous people," he said. "But we don't know what this disease was."
Acuña-Soto, who has published his findings in several international scholarly journals, is a research professor at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
Three major epidemics comprised what he calls the "megadeath."
Most scholars agree that the first bout, from 1519-1521, was caused by smallpox brought over by the Spaniards and to which the natives had no resistance. The disease, which is characterized by high fevers and pustules on the skin, may have killed as many as 8 million Indians in Mexico.
But Acuña-Soto claims another two epidemics in 1545 and 1576 were caused by an even more gruesome and lethal disease. The first epidemic killed between 7 million and 17 million people, and the second wiped out another 2 million half the remaining population, he said.
His arguments largely are based on a first-person account by Francisco Hernandez, the personal physician of King Phillip II of Spain, who witnessed the 1576 epidemic. The symptoms he described did not sound to Acuña-Soto like any of the usual suspects smallpox, measles or typhus.
"Blood flowed from the ears, and in many cases blood truly gushed from the nose," the royal doctor wrote in Latin to a friend. "The fevers were contagious, burning and continuous, all of them pestilential, in most part lethal."
"The tongue was dry and black," he went on in clinical detail. "Urine of the colors of sea-green, vegetal green and black."
The text, which disappeared for centuries before turning up in 1954, has only recently been cited by scholars. And differences among translations have fueled the historic debate.
If cocoliztli had been a hemorrhagic fever, Acuña-Soto reasons, the Spaniards couldn't have brought it with them. Hemorrhagic diseases which include such terrifying killers as Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa don't readily pass from one person to another.
Not everyone is convinced.
"The disease came from animals that didn't exist in the Americas," said Elsa Malvido, a Mexican colonial historian who has spent 40 years tracing the origins of the diseases that decimated the Aztecs. She argues that the later epidemics were caused by bubonic plague carried from Europe to Mexico by black rats stowed aboard Spanish galleons.
She cites indigenous codices that describe a plague of rats preceding the epidemics.
However, Malvido acknowledged: "As long as I don't have a skeleton to extract DNA, of course, these are all hypotheses."
Acuña-Soto counters that the disease doesn't fit the pattern of bubonic plague, which he said tends to spread inland from coastal areas and kills a minority of those infected. In contrast, he said, cocoliztli originated in central Mexico City and had the most devastating impact in the highlands.
The later epidemics coincided with two major droughts, which may have magnified the human impact of the disease, he said.
Indeed. Very hard to spread these diseases. You practically have to wallow in the other person's blood, ripping their beating heart out of their chest and perhaps ritually eating body parts.
What are the chances the Aztecs did stuff like that??
Either way the Aztecs are gone, which is a good thing.
If what I just wrote made you sad or angry,
it was probably just a joke.
I think I am one of the few people who can understand your wit.
The purity of indiginous people would preclude such a thing.
"The epidemic of cocoliztli from1545 to 1548 killed an estimated 5 million to 15 million people, or up to 80% of the native population of Mexico (Figure 1). In absolute and relative terms the 1545 epidemic was one of the worst demographic catastrophes in human history, approaching even the Black Death of bubonic plague, which killed approximately 25 million in western Europe from 1347 to 1351 or about 50% of the regional population."
"The cocoliztli epidemic from 1576 to 1578 cocoliztli epidemic killed an additional 2 to 2.5 million people, or about 50% of the remaining native population."
Maybe it was an unusually deadly form of something like Dengue Fever?
NAFTA - North American Fever Transmission Act
I am a historian who hasn't bought the PC "we killed the native peoples" whine in quite a long time.
Considering that the "native peoples" waged ongoing war with other native tribes, enslaved them and practiced cannibalism and horrifying religious rituals, I'm surprised the Euros agreed to stay.
The Southwestern Annasazi, it has been specualted, were wiped out by a disease that afflicts those who eat human flesh.
I am an historian, too, and of partly Indian ancestry. There has never been a day in my life when I yearned for the life of my Indian ancestors. I never wintered in a warm house with central heat secretly harboring a sentimental desire to be in a tee pee, instead, with the blizzard whipping at its flimsy walls. I have seen buffalo covered in snow with icicles hanging from their fur. There but for the grace of God, go I.
"It's a key piece of the "Black Legend," the tales of atrocities committed by the Spanish Inquisition and colonizers of the New World."
Interesting take on "legend." Wasn't this, like the Columbus "legend," created in the mid-1960s? No wonder our elite colleges are failing simple civics & history tests.
Either way the Aztecs are gone, which is a good thing.
That's a pretty blanket statement, don't you think?
I don't understand why the smallpox theory is so comforting to indians? It's pretty politically neutral. It was a disaster waiting to happen as soon as the indians encountered europeans with the hideous disease. Absent complete lack of contact between the old and new worlds, smallpox was eventually going to happen to the new world.
I believe there is a contention that the Spaniards deliberately spread small pox on several occasions. I think that's why it's comforting to them.
The Anasazi destroyed their environment. Read up on Chaco Canyon, it's very interesting. I'm not saying that the natives weren't prone to cannibalism, but it is pretty much accepted as fact that this particular population destroyed the world around them, then disbanded or starved like so many civilizations before them.
It goes back to the Reformation, with Protestant cheerleaders exaggerating sins by Catholics, and ignoring their own. This is especially true with stories about the Inquisition.
Nah -- just go down to Kennett Square and tour a mushroom farm or two...
I know of the Ward Churchill allegations. But even if true, smallpox was perfectly capable of wiping out entire populations all on its own--of all diseases, it doesn't need any help. It was only a question of when. Not whether.
What was I thinking? Of course we need to keep cultures around that engage in human sacrfice and keep slaves. All cultures are equally valid.
(laughing) I loved this post. If the environmentalists have THEIR way, we will ALL be living in teepees..those of us who are left, that is...
All cultures are equally valid.
You, with a military background, should know that there are good people in every culture. (even in Nam) I've read other posts from you suggesting certain *Native* groups of people seemingly don't have the right to exist. Using that pretext, maybe the human race should be wiped out?
I'm not trying to dog you but, some of your post are rather disturbing.
All cultures couldn't possibly be equally "valid," or they'd all still be around. But that certainly doesn't mean that their adherents, their members, aren't "valid" or precious, or worth saving from their ignorance. I'd think that military types, in particular, would be accutely aware of the need for the dominance of the cultures they defend. If they're not fighting for the preservation of their respective cultures, what's their motivation? Jingoism does have its place.
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Note: this topic is from 10/15/2006.
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