Discover magazine has an interesting article discussing alternatives to the view that European diseases spread by the conquistadores wiped out Aztec civilization through successive epidemics between 1519 and 1619. In 1519, when Cortez arrived, the population of Mexico stood at approximately 22 million people. A century later that figure dropped to the neighborhood of 2 million people, which means that over the course of one hundred years the population dropped by 90%. I can't even imagine what that must have been like for the Aztecs - imagine if 9 out of every 10 people in the United States died due to disease over the course of the next three generations. Our society would never recover - just like the Aztecs.
Mexican epidemiologist Rodolfo Acuña-Soto decided to take a closer look at the epidemics that wiped out the Aztecs because things just didn't make sense to him. The traditional account says that European diseases like smallpox, combined with Spanish brutality and taxes did in the Aztecs. This is supported by at least some of the evidence - half of the indigenous peoples of the West Indies died from small pox by 1512, and the Spanish themselves admitted that smallpox and mistreatment of native peoples led to their demise.
Acuña-Soto doesn't believe this any more than the Aztecs, who called smallpox "zahuatl", and were evidently familiar with the disease before the arrival of the Spanish, although Cortez' arrival does seem to have triggered year-long outbreaks in 1520 and 1531. The disease that laid the Aztecs low, called "cocolitzli" arrived in 1545 and 1576, and, according to Acuña-Soto was a whole new animal. Based on the descriptions of the symptoms and the movement of disease found in Spanish census data, Acuña-Soto believes that cocolitzli was a type of hemorrhagic fever. The descriptions from period autopsies are gruesome, and fit more with Ebola or Dengue Fever than smallpox or typhus:
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.What this means, and Acuña-Soto claims, is that the Spanish did not bring this disease to Mexico, but that it was already there living in an animal or insect host. He believes that the fever was introduced to a populace weakened by the Spanish conquest during periods of drought, when rodents passed the disease among themselves and poverty stricken native inhabitants came into frequent contact with them. The question now, then, is whether this disease could resurface in modern Mexico.
So what does this mean for those of us who teach this era? Well, it challenges the basic ideas in all of our U.S. History and Western Civilization textbooks: that disease brought by Europeans wiped out the native peoples of Central and North America. These peoples still suffered mightily at the hands of Europeans, but if Acuña-Soto's research is correct, the disease that wiped out the Aztecs in Central America was not smallpox or another European disease. Since the drought that Acuña-Soto believes was the catalyst for the major epidemics of cocolitzli extended to most of the continent, did it also impact the inhabitants of North America? Most histories assume that North American Indians were substantially impacted by disease introduced by the Spanish in Mexico, which traveled north and east, creating the "empty" continent that Americans then expanded into (of course, empty is a relative term here, as there were still a large number of Native Americans living in North America when American western expansion began. Americans just saw the place as "empty").