Friday, October 13, 2006

The Deadly European Germs

Until World War II more victims of war died of microbes than of gunshot or sword wounds. All those military histories glorifying Alexander the Great and Napoleon ignore the ego-deflating truth: the winners of past wars were not necessarily those armies with the best generals and weapons, but those bearing the worst germs with which to smite their enemies.

U.S. and Australian whites bent on wiping out “belligerent” native peoples sent them gifts of blankets previously used by smallpox patients.

In the century or two following Columbus’s arrival in the New World, the Indian population is estimated to have declined about 95 per cent. The main killers were European germs, to which the Indians had never been exposed and against which they therefore had neither immunologic nor genetic resistance.

Smallpox, measles, influenza, and typhus competed for top rank among the killers. As if those were not enough, pertussis, plague, tuberculosis, diphtheria, mumps, malaria and yellow fever came close behind.

In countless cases Europeans were actually there to witness the decimation that occurred when the germs arrived. For example, in 1837 the Mandan Indian Tribe, with one of the most elaborate cultures in the Great Plains, contracted smallpox thanks to a steamboat traveling up the Missouri River from St. Louis. The population of one Mandan village crashed from 2,000 to less than 40 within a few weeks.

Eurasian germs played a key role in decimating native peoples in many other parts of the world as well. Racist Europeans use to attribute those conquests to their supposedly better brains. But no evidence for such better brains has been forthcoming.

There’s no doubt that Columbus was a great visionary, seaman and leader. There is also no doubt that he and his successors often behaved as bestial murderers. But those facts alone don’t fully explain why it took so few European immigrants to initially conquer and ultimately supplant so much of the native population of the Americas.

Without the germs Europeans brought with them-germs that were derived from their animals-such conquests might have been impossible.

(Quoted from The Arrow of Disease by Jared Diamond)



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