The New World that Columbus discovered in 1492 was rich in wonders but devoid of immunity to old-world diseases. Smallpox, a feared killer in Europe and Asia for centuries, was unknown in the Americas before the ‘white man’ arrived. The disease stripped North and South America of its indigenous inhabitants far more effectively than any amount of war with the colonizers.
In 1520 when Cortez and his men retreated from the Central American Aztec capital Tenochtitlan they left smallpox in their wake. When the conquistadores finally captured the city in 1521 they found it strewn with smallpox victims. Around 40 per cent of the Aztec population died of the disease. Altogether, more than two thirds of Mexico’s population was lost. Similarly, the Incas of Peru were weakened by European diseases and eventually between 60 and 90 per cent had been killed by smallpox, while some of the Caribbean peoples were almost entirely wiped out.
Smallpox did its destructive job far more slowly among the scattered tribes of the North American Plains. European settlers suffered epidemics throughout the 17th and 18th centuries which inevitably spread to the ‘biologically naive’ Amerindian population, carried by the fur trade to the remotest regions. The first major epidemic of 1617-1619 decimated tribes throughout the Great Plains. The Native Americans tried traditional remedies to no avail. At first they thought they were being punished for violation of tribal laws but, as soon as they realized that smallpox came from the European colonists, they thought they were being deliberately infected. By 1800 the population of the Plains Indians was reduced by two thirds.
Vaccination programs were established in the 19th century and smallpox was gradually eradicated from the Americas. But by then it was too late. Whole civilizations had been destroyed and unique cultures lost forever.
Where: North and South America
Death toll: The population of the Americas before 1492 is unknown, it is possible that smallpox wiped out as much as 80 per cent of the Amerindians; some groups became extinct.
You should know: The sweat lodge (a sort of sauna) was traditionally used by North American Indians as a remedy for disease. Tragically, it was inappropriate for smallpox victims – the steaming herbs used as analgesics and decongestants were often emetic, the heat worsened the sores and the cold plunge afterwards weakened resistance and caused shock.