Starving because of plague

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Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650 is a short and dense little book which summarizes the latest research on the litany of plagues which reduced the population of the New World by 1-2 orders of magnitude within the century after Columbus. 1491 is writerly enough so that the depressing aspect of the topic is at least presented in a manner which blunts the effect of scale of the death. Born to Die, as the title may indicate, makes little attempt at that sort of elegant exposition; just tables after tables of fatality numbers, quotations from eye witnesses to the death, and so on. With that all that said, there was one qualitatively new piece of information that I am now aware of: many people died of starvation, not the disease which had rendered them immobile. Here’s what would happen: a disease which most Europeans were immune to because of childhood exposure, think measles, would strike a tribe all at once. Not only might the symptoms be far more grave because of a less robust immune response (many would die), but the whole village or population would manifest simultaneously. This is a problem, a certain number of hours are needed for activities such as grinding maize into corn meal. If only 1/10th of the population is at full strength there are simply too few hands doing too much for those who need to recuperate; basic activities necessary for survival on the margins of the Malthusian trap now go undone. Without corn meal starvation quickly follows, well before the path of the disease leads to either death or recuperation.

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17 Comments

  1. Similarly, in “The Rise of Christianity,” argues that one of the factors of Christianity’s success in Rome is that when plagues came into cities, the gentry was likely to leave to the more hygienic countryside while the Christians set -up hospitals. This cut the death rate in half pretty quickly (as many victims actually died of dehydration), and built up immunities among the Christians.

  2. Is this the reigning academic consensus now — that the native Amerindian population declined by 90-99% by 1600? 
     
    Do we have any data on which diseases caused the most destruction? Growing up I was taught the then conventional wisdom that it was purposeful genocide by whites using a combination of guns and smallpox. Clearly the guns played a small role.  
     
    Was the role of smallpox a dominant one, or was that just in the conventional wisdom because we find smallpox scary nowadays, but have difficulty imagining the measles or chicken pox wiping out a village?

  3. smallpox looms large; but not more than 50% from what i can tell. some of the diseases don’t manifest in the same way among native peoples, so identification can be hard.

  4. The same factors must have been at work in the even newer world of Australia.  
     
    See Invisible Invaders. 
    BTW, is it really true that the Europeans spread smallpox in the new world via blankets, or is that urban myth?

  5. is it really true that the Europeans spread smallpox in the new world via blankets 
     
    this happened or was proposed. but mostly it spread without conscious knowledge. the carribean natives seem to have spread many of the diseases to the north american coast even before cortes showed up.

  6. It’s shown via his own letters that Lord Amherst discussed distributing smallpox infected blankets with a subordinate during Pontiac’s rebellion. The microfiches are available via google.

  7. I’m aware of Lord Amherst’s discussion. But that doesn’t answer my question: is spreading of smallpox via infected blankets possible? 
     
    In Australia it used to be believed that smallpox was of course spread by the evil white man, but now it appears it was spread from the north via Indonesian/Macassan fisherman, who traded with the Aborigines for some centuries.  
     
    The English brought dried variola scabs with them on the First Fleet and this was blamed, along with contact. But you can’t spread smallpox via dried scabs. So I was wondering the same about the blankets.

  8. A description of the Australian smallpox epidemic of 1789, and the history wars that rage there as well.

  9. But Pontiac’s Rebellion was in 1763, almost two centuries after the great plagues would have mostly destroyed the native populations. It’s a dastardly thing to do, but can’t be responsible for a genocide a hundred years in the past. 
     
    Also, I’m amazed at this, but wikipedia claims that the Amherst letter is the only documented reference to even the idea of using smallpox as a weapon in North America. I was raised to believe the colonists were handing out smallpox blankets left and right. 
     
    I’m very surprised to learn about the lack of documented historical evidence. I’d believed in the widespread use of smallpox blankets my entire life (well, from age 5 or so) until a few minutes ago.

  10. I just heard an Icelandic lecturer say that the population of Iceland was down to ~28,000 (now 300,000) around 1800 due to either a volcanic eruption or bad weather or both. Iceland’s inaccessibility, small population, vulnerable location, and tendencies toward island endogamy have made it into a kind of genetic experiment. Apparently there have been repeated population disasters, but little repopulation from overseas. 
     
    The guy was neither a geneticist not a historian, but he spoke as though it was common knowledge. 
     
    You wonder whether some of the data in the gene studies being done in Iceland might be a little skewed away from global norms because of iceland’s peculiar history.

  11. Similarly, in “The Rise of Christianity,” argues that one of the factors of Christianity’s success in Rome is that when plagues came into cities, the gentry was likely to leave to the more hygienic countryside while the Christians set -up hospitals. This cut the death rate in half pretty quickly (as many victims actually died of dehydration), and built up immunities among the Christians. 
     
    i’ve read stark’s book. it’s pretty good, and far less polemical than his later stuff aimed at a more general audience. but there is one thing he misses: christianity was a religion of the cities, and cities were subject to natural decrease. so one countervailing trend he didn’t seem to emphasize would be that the christian proportion could have been at an equilibrium because the city-born don’t leave many descendants and are replaced by country dwellers, the pagani
     
    But Pontiac’s Rebellion was in 1763, almost two centuries after the great plagues would have mostly destroyed the native populations. 
     
    there was some latency due to isolation. plagues still go through contacted amazonian groups to this day. 
     
    re: iceland, that is actually another case where introduced plagues are problematic. obviously not as bad as the new world; but the population was small enough so that endemic diseases could go extinct. so this would result in occasional reintroduction of “childhood diseases” which icelanders hadn’t ever experienced and so adults would be hit (think of adults contracting chicken pox).

  12. Razib, 
     
    A great point. Stark includes other methods of growth, as well (the same cult-based growth that happens now with the Moonies, for instance), but you’re right he doesn’t address that angle.

  13. think of adults contracting chicken pox 
     
    I caught it aged 37. Terrible. Don’t know if in some more medieval conditions I would have survived it due to bacterial infection of the open pox lesions.

  14. Raz, EW, 
     
    childhood diseases” which icelanders hadn’t ever experienced and so adults would be hit  
     
    A few year ago, when my daughter started daycare and developed what seemed like a “cold”, I picked it up from her and developed severe complications, before it was finally diagnosed as Cytomegalovirus or CMV – which seemingly 80% US adults carry immunity for, but is virtually unknown in the island of Ireland – where I’m from.

  15. is spreading of smallpox via infected blankets possible? 
     
    It’s been proposed that the real vector in these cases was bedbugs (living in the blankets). I don’t know whether smallpox virus could survive on blankets alone.

  16. Proposed by whom? Smallpox is spread by close contact between humans. The suggestion that a fomite can spread smallpox is speculation, as far as I know. (Not other diseases.)

  17. Proposed by whom? 
     
    Charles Campbell, primarily. And he did a number of experiments to test the thesis that smallpox could be spread by fomites, with all of the results negative.

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