The Story of Smallpox – and other Deadly European Germs Much of the credit for European military success in the New World can be attributed to the superiority of their weapons and even the fact they had unique load-bearing mammals



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The Story of... Smallpox – and other Deadly European Germs


Much of the credit for European military success in the New World can be attributed to the superiority of their weapons and even the fact they had unique load-bearing mammals, like horses. These factors combined, gave the conquistadors a massive advantage over the sophisticated civilization of the Inca Empire.

But weapons alone can't account for the breathtaking speed with which the indigenous population of the New World was completely wiped out.

Within just a few generations, the continents of the Americas were virtually emptied of their native inhabitants – some academics estimate that approximately 20 million people may have died in the years following the European invasion – up to 95% of the population of the Americas.

No medieval force, no matter how bloodthirsty, could have achieved such enormous levels of genocide. Instead, Europeans were aided by a deadly secret weapon they weren't even aware they were carrying: Smallpox.


Smallpox is a viral infection which usually enters the body through the nose or throat. From here the virus travels to the lungs, where it multiplies and spreads to the immune system. Within a few days, large boils begin to appear all over the victim's skin.

Starting with the hands and the face, and then spreading to cover the rest of the body, each blister is packed full of smallpox DNA. If punctured, these blisters become highly infectious, projecting fresh smallpox particles into the air and onto surrounding surfaces -such as someone else's skin. It is a disease that requires close human contact to replicate and survive.

The total incubation period lasts 12 days, at which point the patient will either have died or survived. But throughout that period, if gone unchecked, they may have passed the disease to an enormous number of people.


So where does this deadly disease come from, and why was it linked to Europeans?

For thousands of years, the people of Europe lived in close proximity to the largest
variety of domesticated mammals in the world – eating, drinking, and breathing in the germs these animals bore. Over time, animal infections crossed species, evolving into new strains which became deadly to man. Diseases like smallpox, influenza and measles were in fact the deadly inheritance of the European farming tradition – the product of thousands of years spent farming livestock.

These epidemic European diseases flourished in dense communities and tended to explode in sudden, overwhelming epidemics of infection and death. Transmitted via coughing, sneezing and tactile infection, they wreaked devastation throughout European history – and in the era before antibiotics, thousands died.



But not everyone.

With each epidemic eruption, some people survived, acquiring antibodies and immunities which they passed on to the next generation. Over time, the population of Europe gained increased immunity, and the devastating impact of traditional infections decreased. Yet the people of the New World had no history of prior exposure to these germs.






When the Europeans arrived, carrying germs which thrived in dense, semi-urban populations, the indigenous people of the Americas were effectively doomed. They had never experienced smallpox, measles or flu before, and the viruses tore through the continent, killing an estimated 90% of Native Americans.

Smallpox is believed to have arrived in the Americas in 1520 on a Spanish ship sailing from Cuba, carried by an infected African slave. As soon as the party landed in Mexico, the infection began its deadly voyage through the continent. Even before the arrival of Pizarro, smallpox had already devastated the Inca Empire.





Although the Incan Empire had a strong Army, they would not be able to fight off smallpox. Over 200,000 Incas died of smallpox, cutting the empire in half. The Incan Empire was regarded as “virgin soil” because none of the diseases brought over by the Spanish, including smallpox, had ever been seen by these people. The Incas were not immune to smallpox, so when everyone was hit at once, it caused a high death rate. The Spanish were immune to many diseases and their genes had become resistant, making it easier for them to survive.


One way that helped smallpox spread easily was the Inca Road System. The Inca Road System consisted of two roads that branched off, stretching over the whole empire. Many people traveled on the Inca Road System and they brought their diseases with them everywhere they went, infecting more people. The massive amounts of deaths from smallpox would help Francisco Pizarro conquer the Incan Empire.

More victims of colonization were killed by European germs, than by either the gun or the sword, making germs the deadliest agent of conquest.




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