More specifically, what infectious diseases were Native Americans exposed to that were not a result of endemic spread in wild animals in the Americas? This would be a list of diseases that were introduced specifically by migration across Beringia, through human-to-human transmission.

It is well-known that Europeans introduced highly lethal diseases such as smallpox, measles, and bubonic plague to Native Americans. This paper describes some infectious diseases that were present before Columbus, such as rabies, tuberculosis, and tularemia, but in many cases, it seems likely that these pathogens spread from ancient animal reservoirs in the Americas.

Rabies: There is no human-to-human transmission of rabies. In the modern-day US, rabies infection most often occurs with bites from wild bats and feral dogs.

Tuberculosis: According to this paper, genetic evidence suggests that tuberculosis was introduced to pre-Columbian America rather recently by seals, not through human migration. This now-extinct strain of tuberculosis may not have been capable of human-to-human transmission.

Tularemia: There is no human-to-human transmission of tularemia. In the modern-day US, tularemia infection most often occurs with bites from ticks, deer flies, and rodents.

Perhaps what is more interesting is the list of widespread, highly-contagious, modern-day diseases which the paper curiously leaves out. The authors do not say that the flu, the common cold, or chlamydia, etc were endemic in the Americas before Columbus, which I find hard to believe given their extreme transmissibility and ubiquity. I would be inclined to say they were endemic in prehistoric humans. Is there more detailed literature on this?

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    I recommend William McNeil's "Plagues and Peoples: The Influence of Infections Diseases Upon History". Scholarly and very readable.
    – Mark Olson
    Apr 28, 2023 at 21:17
  • @jan Note that influenza is often carried by birds as a non-human vector and the have been moving between continents from before humans existed. Anything birds can carry will spread. (However this is not to say that the Europeans may not have carried strains of influenza to which the natives of the Americas had little immunity.)
    – Mark Olson
    Apr 29, 2023 at 1:19
  • @Jan, it says that may have been the first influenza epidemic, not the first instance of influenza in people (seems unlikely given its ubiquity in nature, including in New World wildlife). And it's very unclear if that was influenza or another respiratory disease. Apr 29, 2023 at 3:21
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    It is a wide spread view that paleolithic hunter&gatherers weren't exposed that much to infectious diseases (they had their problems, don't worry) as in the subsequent neolithic. Your question would probably ask for specific analyses or other hints in late upper paleolithic find sites across Siberia and the Americas at the time of the last glacial maximum and shortly thereafter. Very specific, not sure if there is enough material.
    – user61921
    Oct 3, 2023 at 18:39
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    At least, syphilis was present in America before Columbus en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syphilis#Origin,_spread_and_discovery although it's debated if it (or some strain of it) was also present in the Old World.
    – Pere
    Mar 13 at 16:25


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