Friday, May 26, 2006

Europeans Didn't Kill the Aztecs

One of those things that 'everybody knows' appears to be coming under attack.

As readers may know, I a sucker for history and have an affinity for Mexico, so my interest here is no surprise. When the Spaniards came to Mexico and conquered the Aztecs, millions upon millions of natives died. Obviously, troops don't kill that many; it was disease. And perhaps because of the coincidence of timing (Spanish arrive, millions die), it's always been accepted that the killer was European diseases such as smallpox. Well, now a Mexican epidemiologist thinks that it may have been an indigenous hemorrhagic fever which killed in waves, and that could conceivably recur:

When Hernando Cortés and his Spanish army of fewer than a thousand men stormed into Mexico in 1519, the native population numbered about 22 million. By the end of the century, following a series of devastating epidemics, only 2 million people remained. Even compared with the casualties of the Black Death, the mortality rate was extraordinarily high. Mexican epidemiologist Rodolfo Acuña-Soto refers to it as the time of "megadeath." The toll forever altered the culture of Mesoamerica and branded the Spanish as the worst kind of conquerors, those from foreign lands who kill with their microbes as well as their swords.

...Spanish colonists wrote at the time that outbreaks of zahuatl [the Aztec word for smallpox] occurred in 1520 and 1531 and, typical of smallpox, lasted about a year. As many as 8 million people died from those outbreaks. But the epidemic that appeared in 1545, followed by another in 1576, seemed to be another disease altogether. The Aztecs called those outbreaks by a separate name, cocolitzli. "For them, cocolitzli was something completely different and far more virulent," Acuña-Soto says. "Cocolitzli brought incomparable devastation that passed readily from one region to the next and killed quickly."

...The fevers were contagious, burning, and continuous, all of them pestilential, in most part lethal. The tongue was dry and black. Enormous thirst. Urine of the colors of sea-green, vegetal green, and black, sometimes passing from the greenish color to the pale. Pulse was frequent, fast, small, and weak—sometimes even null. The eyes and the whole body were yellow. This stage was followed by delirium and seizures. Then, hard and painful nodules appeared behind one or both ears along with heartache, chest pain, abdominal pain, tremor, great anxiety, and dysentery. The blood that flowed when cutting a vein had a green color or was very pale, dry, and without serosity. . . . Blood flowed from the ears and in many cases blood truly gushed from the nose. . . . This epidemic attacked mainly young people and seldom the elder ones.

"This was certainly not smallpox," Acuña-Soto says. "If they described something real, then it appeared to be a hemorrhagic fever."

Hemorrhagic fevers are viral diseases with names that evoke justifiable dread—Ebola, Marburg, Lassa. They strike with sudden intensity, rarely respond to treatment, kill at high rates, then vanish as mysteriously as they came. They are called hemorrhagic because victims bleed, hemorrhaging in their capillaries, beneath the skin, often from the mouth, nose, and ears. The bleeding doesn't kill, but the breakdown of the nervous system does. At first there is fever, fatigue, and dizziness, but within a few days the person falls into delirium and finally a coma.

...With the climate data in place, Acuña-Soto could piece together a convincing explanation of those epidemic years. Cocolitzli had been caused by a hemorrhagic fever virus that had lain dormant in its animal hosts, most likely rodents. Severe drought would have contained the population of rodents, forcing them to hole up wherever they could find water. Initially, only a small percentage may have been infected, but when forced into close quarters the virus was transmitted during bloody fights. Infected mother rodents then passed the virus to their young during pregnancy. When the rains returned, the rodents bred quickly and spread the virus—through their urine and feces—as they came into contact with humans in fields and homes. Once infected, humans transmitted the virus to one another through contact with blood, sweat, and saliva.

Well, I find it interesting. And whose blog is this, anyway?

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

a very interesting potential revision of a part of history long blamed on the spanish invasion...intriguing