European disease didn’t wipe out Aztecs

According to “Megadeath” at it was a hemorraghic fever, native to Mexico and only found when severe drought is followed by a wet period. The Aztecs knew smallpox; they even had their own name for it. But the horrible death that wiped most of them out, they called something else.

It is fascinating reading. (If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, Comment 2 has relevant short quotes from the article.)

Thanks to Mirabilis for the pointer.

2 thoughts on “European disease didn’t wipe out Aztecs

  1. “The cocolitzli plagues of the mid-16th century probably had nothing to do with smallpox. In fact, they probably had little to do with the Spanish invasion. But they probably did have an origin that is worth knowing about in 2006.”

    …described cocolitzli in terms that did not match any Old World disease:

    The fevers were contagious, burning, and continuous, all of them pestilential, in most part lethal. The tongue was dry and black. Enormous thirst. Urine of the colors of sea-green, vegetal green, and black, sometimes passing from the greenish color to the pale. Pulse was frequent, fast, small, and weak—sometimes even null. The eyes and the whole body were yellow. This stage was followed by delirium and seizures. Then, hard and painful nodules appeared behind one or both ears along with heartache, chest pain, abdominal pain, tremor, great anxiety, and dysentery. The blood that flowed when cutting a vein had a green color or was very pale, dry, and without serosity. . . . Blood flowed from the ears and in many cases blood truly gushed from the nose. . . . This epidemic attacked mainly young people and seldom the elder ones.

    “This was certainly not smallpox,” Acuña-Soto says. “If they described something real, then it appeared to be a hemorrhagic fever.”

    “If cocolitzli had been caused by a hemorrhagic virus, Acuña-Soto realized, the Spanish could not have brought it with them. Such diseases do not readily pass from one person to another, so the virus must have been native. ”

    The years of the greatest Aztec plagues were preceded by years of exceptional drought. In a tree-ring record like the one below, taken from a 450-year-old Douglas fir, light bands show spring growth. The darker bands in between represent the tree’s summer and fall growth. In an arid climate such as that in the Mexico basin, the growth of a tree is most affected by the amount of spring rainfall. As this set of tree rings shows, rainfall in the Aztec kingdom (the light bands) declined following 1571. After four years of intensifying drought, the rains returned in 1576. Records from hundreds of other trees in the region confirm this pattern. According to Acuña-Soto’s theory, rodents infected with a viral disease the Aztecs called cocolitzli remained holed up wherever they could find water during drought years. When the weather turned wet again, the rodents spread out to take advantage of the increased water and food, spreading cocolitzli to humans and unleashing a deadly plague.

    So, according to the article, it was a native hemorraghic fever (which is not spread easily one human to another) that almost wiped out the Aztecs and allowed the Spaniards to conquer them fairly easily.

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