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December 29, 2000
10:43 PM   Subscribe

In 1545 and 1576, plagues swept across the Yucatan peninsual in Mexico and killed 17 million people, including 80 percent of the native Indians. The traditional view is that American Indians succumbed to European diseases to which they had no natural resistance. A new and subtle theory says that the plagues were not imported but were in fact of local origin. It doesn't let the Europeans off the hook though.
posted by lagado (2 comments total)

Fairly speculative but interesting non-the-less. There have been plague outbreaks since of course. Algeria in the 1950s. It was indeed the fleas from rats that harbored the plague there. Of course, Algeria has a warmer climate. Here in our own Southwest, plague is carried in the fleas of prarie dogs.

Regardless of vector, human flea or rat flea, once the host animal is dead the flea has to find another host. When all the rats came up out of the sewers in Algeria and died, the people there thought the plague would be over. Instead the fleas just switched to humans. Thats what I would do if I were a flea.

Italy, which of course was the entry into Europe for the plague, was devastated to say the least. With no knowledge of bacteria or virus and foul air... witchcraft and Jews were placed in blame. There were many attempts at cures. Doctors of the time did not shirk their responsibilities regardless of their ignorance and many died attempting to help the sick.

Remarkably, one doctor came upon the idea of lancing the buboils, the pus sacks the desease produced in the lymph nodes, and making a tea with the pus and herbs then having his patients drink it. Of course he killed his patients because he could not heat the concotion hot enough to kill the germs, but he came that close to inventing the first vaccine. (sorry it took so long to reply, I was thinking... hahaha)
posted by Dean_Paxton at 2:32 PM on December 31, 2000

Cheers, Dean. I nearly missed your comment too.

You're right, there have been plenty of plagues both before and since. Smallpox, for example has been blamed for the weakening of the Incan Empire several years before the arrival of the Conquistador Francisco Pizzaro.

The part that most interests me here is that sometimes it's not the actual disease that matters but rather the social conditions which enabled it to spread.

Epidemic diseases require high density populations before they become a problem. This particular disease before Spanish conquest seems never to have had sufficiently high densities for it to act as a vector.

posted by lagado at 9:36 PM on January 1, 2001

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