Ann-Marie B. Gunselman Hist. 392 Dr. Tirado 3/27/96 The Impact of Infectious Disease in the New World "It is often said that in the centuries after Columbus landed in the New World on 12 October, 1492, more native North Americans died each year from infectious diseases brought by the European settlers than were born." (6) The decimation of people indigenous to the Americas by diseases introduced by European invaders is unprecedented. While it is difficult to accurately determine the population of the pre-Columbian Americas, scholars estimate the number to have been between 40 and 50 million people. The population in Mexico alone in 1519 is believed to have been approximately 30 million. By 1568, that number was down to 3 million inhabitants. Although there were other causes for the population reduction such as "alcoholism, warfare, genocide, cultural disruption, and declines in fertility", it is now known that disease played a central role in the depopulation of the Americas. But how is it that these native peoples harbored virtually no immunity to the European diseases? What were these diseases and how did they come to be so feared? Who introduced them to this New World? How did this biological disaster affect the social structure of the Indians? This brief will attempt to answer the preceding questions. How is the presence or absence of disease in the New World determined? Archeologists are able to determine if a society or individual fell prey to disease by examining teeth, bones, coprolites(feces), and artistic depictions. Through the excavations of burial mounds, scientists have discovered that certain afflictions existed even before the white man landed. "Missing limbs, skin diseases, blindness, cleft palate, clubfoot, "dental disease, parasites, arthritis, and tuberculosis are all thought to have existed in pre-Columbian America. However, tracing epidemiology in the 15th century is difficult because so little was done to identify and classify diseases and their symptoms during this time period. One might say that the New World was "ripe" for the onslaught of hitherto unknown diseases due to several demographic shifts prior to 1492. These are parallel to shifts that occurred in Europe such as the creation of large urban areas. Since city planning wasn't what it is today, cities were overcrowded, sewers were nonexistent or inefficient, and disease carrying vermin multiplied. This created a welcome mat for infectious disease in addition to the general uncleanliness of the population and the great number of transient people such as soldiers, students, thieves and the mentally ill. Another factor leading to the assault of disease on medieval Europe was the domestication of large mammals. These animals were the origins of some of the most cursed afflictions of the time. Smallpox is a derivative of cowpox, measles of canine distemper, and influenza of hog diseases. "At first, neither young or old were spared. After generations, susceptible individuals were eliminated and resistant survivors dominated the gene pool. Diseases went from epidemics to childhood ills." (6) It was in this form that diseases were carried to the New World by unsuspecting conquistadors, to a population that had experienced its' own shifts to largely urban and sedentary lifestyles that become fertile ground for such an unseemly weapon of destruction. "Smallpox made its American debut in 1519, when it struck the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo, killing up to half of the indigenous population. From there outbreaks spread across the Antilles islands, onto the Mexican mainland, through the Isthmus of Panama and into South America." (2) Some of the other diseases that followed this path were measles, plagues(bubonic and pulmonary), gonorrhea(from soldiers raping native women), mumps, typhoid, and cholera. Two African diseases, malaria and yellow fever, also came to Central American probably because of the ideal weather conditions in this region. Prior to 1492, the Americas harbored relatively few infectious diseases. It is believed that the New World lived in virtual biological isolation from the rest of the planet due to the absence of domesticated animals and because of the path in which the Indians predecessors traveled. We know from origins of disease in Europe, that domesticated animals were to blame for the start of many epidemics. The New World lacked domesticated animals due to the extinction of large mammals, with which to draw from in the last ice age. Also, the