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 Obvious questions, interesting answers

Editor's Introduction -- Sleepy textbook-writers recite the same tired story again and again, in one history text after another: Columbus discovers the New World; Europeans surge across the sea and bring their diseases with them; the Europeans' diseases then cause massive mortality in Amerindian populations, and the Europeans take over. Sleepy textbook-writers never notice the obvious questions that occur to anyone who is awake: Didn't the Indians pass any diseases to the Europeans? If Europeans carried Old World pathogens that could devastate populations of Indians, didn't the Indians carry New World pathogens that could devastate populations of Europeans? If not, why not? The answers will be interesting to all teachers who take history seriously and who respect their students' intelligence.
This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, September-October 1993.

Recommended Reading

William J. Bennetta

It's the same story, recited sleepily in one history text after another. Glencoe's Challenge of Freedom tells it this way:

By the early 1700's, there were more Europeans living in the Americas than Indians. In part, this was because the Indians did not have natural immunity -- resistance to infection -- against European diseases. European diseases such as measles, smallpox, and typhus killed many [Indians] in the 1600's and 1700's.

Here is the version given in Heath's World History: Perspectives on the Past:

Before the Spanish came, the deadly germs of smallpox, measles, and influenza were unknown in the Americas. The Indians did not have the immunities that Europeans had developed through long contact with those diseases. Columbus's voyages ended the Americas' isolation. . . . Indians were exposed to germs carried by European explorers and colonizers.

Deadly epidemics, or rapid spreading of diseases, swept over the Caribbean islands. Smallpox wiped out whole villages in a matter of months. . . . In the first century of Spanish rule (1500-1600), Indians in Central and South America sickened and died by the millions. By 1650, the population of central Mexico had declined by 85 percent.

The same tale, again and again. Columbus discovers the New World. Europeans surge across the sea, bringing their diseases with them. The diseases sweep through American Indian populations, causing massive mortality, and the Europeans take over.

I have yet to see a textbook that explores or even acknowledges the questions that must occur to any alert reader. Didn't diseases move both ways? If Europeans carried Old World pathogens that could devastate Indian populations, didn't the Indians carry New World pathogens that could destroy Europeans? If not, why not?

Scientists and historians have examined these questions and have developed answers that will be interesting to all teachers who take history seriously and who respect their students' intelligence and curiosity. The answers are given in various publications, but they are presented with exceptional cogency and skill in Alfred W. Crosby's book Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900 - 1900, issued in 1986 by Cambridge University Press (40 West 20th Street, New York, New York 10011).

Crosby is a professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Ecological Imperialism is his account of how Europeans have spread over the globe and have turned some distant lands into what he calls "Neo-Europes." Australia, North America and southern South America are Neo-Europes, as are New Zealand and some smaller islands or island groups. In all these places, ecosystems have been recently and profoundly altered by the arrival of the European human and the other European organisms that he has brought with him: his livestock, his pets, his vermin, his crop plants, his weeds, and his pathogens.

This perspective, in which the European human is seen as one member of a big assemblage of European organisms, is crucial to understanding the epidemics that Europeans unleashed upon other peoples -- not only in the New World but all over the globe. Those epidemics, it turns out, resulted from interactions that had taken place, much earlier, between the European human and his domesticated animals.

The schoolbooks that I mentioned earlier are almost right in one respect. By default, they give the impression that, during European colonization of the Americas, disease flowed in only one direction. That isn't strictly accurate, but as far as destructive epidemics are concerned, what the books imply is true: European diseases ravaged and reduced Indian populations, but no Indian diseases had comparable effects on the Europeans. The problem now is to explain that lopsided situation.

The solution lies in the biology of the European pathogens themselves. Afflictions such as smallpox and measles and typhus are known as crowd diseases and are specifically associated with big populations of humans. In a small, isolated group of people, a crowd-disease pathogen (e.g., the measles virus) can't last for long. It races through the group, in an epidemic, and every person is infected; every person then either perishes or develops an enduring immunity, and the pathogen dies out because there is no one left whom it can infect. But wherever humans gather to form a large, concentrated population (as in an urban center), things are different. Here the pathogen can persist even after an epidemic, because births and immigration continually provide enough new hosts to keep the pathogen going, and if the number of new hosts grows sufficiently large, another epidemic may ensue. In such an environment -- the sort of environment that the interconnected urban centers of Europe have furnished since ancient times -- a crowd-disease pathogen can prosper indefinitely.

Crowd-disease pathogens infect humans, but they evolved from organisms that infect cattle, horses and other beasts that live in big herds. This evolution took place in permanent population centers where Europeans dwelt in continuous contact with domesticated animals, and where pathogens were continuously passed from human to beast and back again.

In the New World, no such thing happened. The population centers weren't as old, as numerous or as closely interconnected as the urban centers of Europe were, and the Indians didn't live in intimate association with animals that harbored herd infections, so Indian populations didn't engender any endemic diseases comparable to smallpox, measles or the other crowd diseases that arose in Europe. And because the Indians simply did not have any crowd diseases to disseminate, epidemic infections could flow in only one direction when the Indians and the Europeans met.

Postscript      History texts seem always to imply that the havocking of New World populations by European diseases is a thing of the past. That is not true; the process is still going on. In this context, I note that history teachers and social-studies teachers can serve their students well by recounting what is happening to the Yanomamö, a tribe of Stone Age people, dwelling chiefly in the rain forests of Venezuela, who only recently have come into extensive, sustained contact with European humans and European microbes. The anthropologist Napoleon A. Chagnon, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, tells this tribe's story in a compelling book titled Yanomamö: The Last Days of Eden, published in 1992 by Harcourt Brace & Company (1250 Sixth Avenue, San Diego, California 92101).

The Yanomamö case is all the more instructive because it revolves around missionaries: Roman Catholic priests of the Salesian order, to whom Venezuelan law gives responsibility for "attracting and reducing" the indigenous people. In both cultural and biological terms, these priests are doing the same things that other priests did, 200 years ago, during the Spanish colonization of California. Yanomamö: The Last Days of Eden can help teachers connect the past to the present in a vivid way, and I recommend it heartily.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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