Are there any historical accounts that those living in the Americas encountered a plague or plagues that proved to be as devastating on the population as that of the Bubonic (black) plague in Europe? Specifically I am interested in sickness prior to contact with Europeans.

NOTE: I am not looking for the Black plague to have existed in the Americas but rather any type of sickness that may have had devastating affects on the population(s) throughout the Americas.

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    There should probably be a tag "Americas" for this rather than using three different tags. – American Luke Aug 16 '12 at 12:58
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    I suggested "america" a synonym of "united states". Please vote on it. I'll suggest "americas" on meta when I have a moment. – American Luke Aug 16 '12 at 13:04
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    In the meantime, I'm changing them all to "new-world", which does exist. – T.E.D. Aug 16 '12 at 14:24
  • anthropology is a bit of a stretch. My sister is an anthropoligist. She says she's constantly telling her friends in the History department that if it didn't happen in the last 50 years, she's not interested. :-) – T.E.D. Aug 16 '12 at 15:01
  • @T.E.D. Depending on which field of anthropology one may be involved in, it would certainly be understandable as to why one may not show interest. However, from a Archaeological anthropologist's perspective I believe this would still be relevant. Regardless, I understand that the difficulty of piecing anything together from a cultural perspective of that time period would be very difficult. – E1Suave Aug 16 '12 at 15:21

The one pandemic disease we know of that has a good chance for having an origin in the Americas is syphilis.

When it first hit Europe in 1494 it spread rapidly and the mortality rate was very high (as is typical with new diseases that hit an immunologically naieve population).

As Jared Diamond describes it, "[W]hen syphilis was first definitely recorded in Europe in 1495, its pustules often covered the body from the head to the knees, caused flesh to fall from people's faces, and led to death within a few months." The disease then was much more lethal than it is today. Diamond concludes,"[B]y 1546, the disease had evolved into the disease with the symptoms so well known to us today."

Given the history of other pandemic diseases, it isn't too much of a stretch to speculate that it would have been even more devestating when it first broke out in the Americas, at least among the more densely settled communities, before both disease and host evolved to live with each other better.

I'm unaware of any archeological proof of this though (skeleton bone studies, etc). Most of the evidence behind the Americas theory of syphilis is currently circumstantial.

  • +1 Now this is definitely worthy of further research, and right on track with what I am looking for. Great answer and thanks for the source (Diamond). – E1Suave Aug 16 '12 at 15:23
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    I believe that quote is from Guns Germs, and Steel. That book is pretty much considered required reading here on History.SE, as near as I can tell. :-) – T.E.D. Aug 16 '12 at 15:33
  • Without doubt it would be a joy to read, especially since my reading generally consists of "technical reading". Unfortunately as of now, I have only seen online videos discussing the Book Guns Germs, and Steel. Thanks again. – E1Suave Aug 16 '12 at 16:36
  • One of its key points, that there were fewer animals capable of being domesticated, is also worth noting. Much of the disease across Eurasia is zoonotic, that is, originating in an animal and evolving to spread to human hosts. Native Americans had less livestock, and thus, less disease. Also see Charles C. Man's "1491" - Native Americans have T-cells optimized to fight parasites, not bacterial or viral infection. – RI Swamp Yankee Aug 16 '12 at 19:11

You can find the answer to that question in Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel. He states that people get infected by their pets and that all great epidemics (variola, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, influenza ...) evolved from animals. Microbes needs a mass of people to spread around so big societies, living in cities and connected with good trading roads, were is the best place for them. They can't survive in small societies because they kill anyone who isn't resistant and therefore fails to spread. Those who survive develop antibodies. Microbes can't survive in small communities of farmers and hunters.

Because american Indians didn't have antibodies to European diseases so many died - sometimes the whole villages. In this diseases it is also success in Pizarro's and Cortes' success. Some scientist believe that there were 95 % decrease in population in 200 years after Columbus.

The only infectious disease coming from America to Europe was syphilis. In America there were great civilizations living in big cities: Aztecs, Incas and Indians who lived in Mississippi. But this cities were never connected with trading paths so microbes couldn't spread as they did in Europe and Asia. The main reason for lack of infectious diseases is that there were no animals, living in herds. There were only five domestic animals: a turkey, a lama, a cavy, some bird and a dog - and they were no source of microbes as cows, sheep.
It doesn't mean that there are no infectious diseases, but there are not so many. But epidemics, diseases of masses, can appear only in dense crowd. This started with agriculture 10.000 years ago and increased with building cities. People live close to each other, they also have pets ...

If I sum it up: according to Jared Diamond there were no epidemics in Americas before 1492.

  • Welcome to History.SE and thank you for your answer. – E1Suave Aug 17 '12 at 23:20

When I was out west a number of years ago, a friend asserted that the disappearance of the "Anasazi" civilization of native Americans could have occurred for any number of reasons, including disease. Unfortunately, I don't think modern scholarship on the subject agrees with his assertion.


Widespread disease generally requires a lot of people to reside in close proximity (cities). While there is evidence of cities of 20,000 to 30,000 among native Americans, the major population centers of Europe during the Black Plague were likely far larger (over 100,000). I would assume that since there were cities, there was also trade, so disease could have been spread from city to city. I'm not at all familiar with the cities or the culture, so have no idea whether sanitation, animal-keeping, large numbers of rodents or other contributing factors were similar to the European experience.

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    There actually were cities. There's not much remaining evidence of them due to local materials (wood) being quickly decayed after abandonment, but some of the earthworks remain today. – SevenSidedDie Aug 17 '12 at 0:09
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    @SevenSidedDie - Mississippian Mound Builder Culture. At their height, they had a city of 20,000-30,000 people in Illinois - it wouldn't be until 1800 when North America would see a larger city. – RI Swamp Yankee Aug 17 '12 at 14:02
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    @RISwampYankee That we know of! We only know about this one because you can't miss it. If there had been a city-building culture that didn't leave obvious signs, we wouldn't know of it. For example, many important Viking settlements were ploughed under and not rediscovered until recently even with concerted effort to find them (e.g. Birka). – SevenSidedDie Aug 17 '12 at 15:20
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    @SevenSidedDie - Well, yeah, see also the newly discovered Amazonian civilizations, who built with earth and timber as well, and supported immense cities - but until we find archeological evidence or firsthand documentation of it, it's not history, it's woolgathering. – RI Swamp Yankee Aug 17 '12 at 17:18
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    @RISwampYankee Of course, yes. In the context of this answer it's more that what we thought we knew about the existence of New World cities is now in question, so "I don't think [people residing in close proximity (cities)] happened much" isn't a supportable point for an argument that there were definitely no plagues. – SevenSidedDie Aug 17 '12 at 17:44

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