In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, bringing to the New World a bounty of wonder: coffee, horses, turnips, grapes, wine.
But Columbus and his fellow explorers, in addition to bringing crops and animals we now take for granted, were also the Typhoid Marys of their time.
The New World before Columbus: no typhoid, no flu, no smallpox, no measles.
The New World after Columbus: epidemics of death.
For Native Americans, the problem was a lesson in basic virology. Because these microbes were as new to society as horses and coffee, nobody had built any immunity to them. Without immunity, wide swaths of people were quickly infected and killed.
The effect — though on a smaller and far less lethal scale — has been seen in recent outbreaks of measles, one of the many diseases Columbus brought to shore. Religious and other anti-vaccine groups are suddenly seeing a highly infectious illness thought to be eradicated spread quickly through their communities.
Modern medicine is helping most sufferers to recover. Centuries ago, most cases ended in death.
“European contact enabled the transmission of diseases to previously isolated communities, which caused devastation far exceeding that of even the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe,” according to a 2010 paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives titled “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas.”
The New World sent potatoes, tomatoes and tobacco to the Old World as part of the Columbian Exchange. The widespread immigration of microbes decimated indigenous communities — an overlooked aspect, historians and other experts say, of the European conquest of the New World.
“Indigenous peoples suffered from white brutality, alcoholism, the killing and driving off of game, and the expropriation of farmland, but all these together are insufficient to explain the degree of their defeat,” wrote the late Alfred W. Crosby, a University of Texas historian considered the preeminent expert on the Columbian Exchange. “The crucial factor was not people, plants, or animals, but germs.”
The result of all these germs, Crosby wrote, was a “virgin soil epidemic.”
The number of New World deaths from measles, smallpox and other diseases is staggering to ponder and almost impossible to quantify, according to research paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives:
Although we may never know the exact magnitudes of the depopulation, it is estimated that upwards of 80–95 percent of the Native American population was decimated within the first 100–150 years following 1492...Within 50 years following contact with Columbus and his crew, the native Taino population of the island of Hispaniola, which had an estimated population between 60,000 and 8 million, was virtually extinct...Central Mexico’s population fell from just under 15 million in 1519 to approximately 1.5 million a century later. Historian and demographer Nobel David Cook estimates that, in the end, the regions least affected lost 80 percent of their populations; those most affected lost their full populations; and a typical society lost 90 percent of its population.
Archaeologists, paleontologists and historians have not been able to pin down which diseases most shattered the New World, primarily because of illiteracy and the lack of written records from those times.
As for the revenge factor, armchair paleontologists have for centuries spoken about how Columbus took home not just potatoes but also syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease.
In 2004, the Organization of American Historians did some fact-checking on the syphilis matter. Like most history, it’s complicated.
“Some historians now believe that syphilis was present in Europe before 1492,” the organization wrote. “The strain that resulted from sexual contact between Europeans and Native Americans, however, was much stronger than the non-venereal version that a few isolated European regions had experienced. This new version was carried back to Europe and spread among the population there.”
And that proved deadly, too.
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