Sunday, May 29, 2016

Diffusion Part VIII
The Mystery of Disease

Picture of Disease ravaged Natives from
the Florentine Codex

In the past I have examined the usual arguments for contact between the Old and New World pre- Columbus. What I have concluded is that at best with the exception of the Norse (c. 1000 C.E.), the evidence is both very poor and at best indicates sporadic and intermittent contact between the Old and New World and further such contact had minimal influence on the development of New World civilization.1

Here I will discuss briefly one of the seminal problems about arguing for sustained contact between the Old and New World pre-Columbus. The lack of similar diseases.2

It is a well established fact that the human populations of the New and Old World had quite different disease environments. Further the spectacular depopulation of the New World after contact due to the importation of European diseases is a well established and terrible fact. It appears that the Native populations of the New World were very vulnerable to European diseases.3  

The repeated waves of disease that swept through Native populations of the New World were a terrible and ongoing fact for centuries after the arrival of Europeans and these repeated waves along with the effects of conquest were responsible for the Native populations taking much time to recover if at all. The result is that now the Native population of the New World are decided minorities in most of the New World.4

It was decidedly different in Africa. although in that case it was different in that Africans had iron  weaponry unlike the Natives of the New World. However unlike the Natives of the New World the Native Africans first had been exposed to many of the diseases that the Europeans had also been exposed to and so were relatively immune to many of the diseases the Europeans could bring. Further the disease environment that the Africans lived in was rich in many diseases to which Europeans were highly vulnerable to. The result was for centuries after the beginning of the age of exploration Europeans were confined to coastal settlements and trading stations on the African coast. And those stations had very high death rates and required continual influxes of Europeans to keep up their numbers.5

Thus Africa was preserved from European conquest simply because any European army was likely to be destroyed not just by Africans but fatally decimated by disease. 

Of course the New World, especially the tropical regions were not free of epidemic disease that were potentially fatal to Europeans it was that relatively speaking compared to Africa the New World was less disease dangerous to Europeans and the population was distinctly more vulnerable to Old World diseases. The result was it made conquest and displacement of the Natives of the New World a lot easier than otherwise would have been the case.

So why this difference?

Perhaps the best reason was the lack of major domestic animals in the New World. Of course the Natives of the New World had Dogs, Turkeys and Llamas but they lacked the profusion of domestic animals that existed in the Old World. They did not have horses, donkeys, pigs, cattle etc. What this meant was that they lacked the prolonged exposure to the diseases that these animals carried that transferred themselves to humans through prolonged contact.6

Thus Old World people's existed in a microbial environment that included a great many of these animal born diseases. Thus over a prolonged period of time Old World peoples built up partial immunities to many of them if not complete immunities.

Thus Old World people had developed some level of resistance to things like TB, Measles, Smallpox etc. Diseases which were either non-existent in the New World or quite different. Further because of the lack of domestic animals New World people had not developed an immunity to diseases that Old World people were vulnerable to.7

The result was a population which was very vulnerable to the diseases brought over by Europeans and which had far fewer new diseases which Europeans were vulnerable to.8 The result was beginning with Columbus and lasting for centuries epidemics of everything from Influenza to Smallpox and Bubonic plague etc., etc., would decimate North American Native populations.

What does this have to do with diffusion? Well although it doesn't prove in the slightest that there was no contact between the civilizations of the New and Old World it is a rather telling indication of the nature and scope of the contact if any.

If the contact had been intense, regular then we should see episodes of depopulation in the archaeological record caused by disease in pre-Columbian times. Further the surviving population should have built up resistance to these diseases. Instead the Native population when Columbus came turned out to be very vulnerable to Old World diseases. This shows that there was a distinct difference between the nature of contact after Columbus and before Columbus. Assuming contact pre-Columbus.

Since we know that the Norse found America c. 1000 C.E. and left little to no influence on the Native people they were in contact with and it appears didn't bring over diseases; contact seems to have been intermittent and sporadic. It can be concluded that pre-Columbus interactions between the Old and New World were much more in the nature of Norse landing in North America c. 1000 C.E. and very little like the situation after Columbus. And one of the indications of this is the devastating impact of disease on the Native population of the New World.

Thus it appears that the impact of disease post-Columbus is another indication that any contact between the civilizations of the Old and New World pre-Columbus was intermittent and sporadic, and that the New World civilizations were largely isolated from the Old World civilizations. And of course incidental sporadic contact would also indicate that any influence of Old World civilizations on New World civilizations would be minor at best.

The tragedy that ensued after Columbus arrived in the New World was part of the price the New World paid for it's isolation from the Old World and that price makes hyper-diffusion very unlikely.

1. For a list of posts talking about Diffusion see Here.

2. See Meltzer, David J., First Peoples in a New World, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 2009, pp. 321-344,

3. IBID, Denevan, William M., Introduction, pp. 1-12, in The Native Population of the Americas, Second Edition, Editor, Denevan, William M.,The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison Win, 1992, and Stannard, David E., American Holocaust, Oxford University Press, New York, 1992, pp. 57-95, Whitmore, Thomas M., Disease and Death in Early Colonial Mexico, Westview Press, Boulder CO, 1992, pp. 201-218, Cook, Nobel David, Lovell, W. George, Unravelling the Web of Disease, pp. 213-242, in "Secret Judgements of God", Editors Cook, Noble David, and Lovell, W. George, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK, 1992. 

4. IBID, and Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998, pp. 354-355.

5. IBID, Diamond, pp. 213-214.

6. IBID, pp. 195-214, 357-358.

7. IBID and Footnote 2.

8. There were a few New World diseases which Europeans had not encountered before but it appears that theses diseases were far fewer and less lethal than the witches brew of diseases brought over by Europeans. Further the only truly major disease that may have been brought over from the New World that had a terrible impact on Europe is possibly Syphilis, although this is disputed. See Lovell et al, at pp. 230-231.

Pierre Cloutier

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