In the current moment, it can feel like what we’re experiencing this year is totally new and unexpected. A global pandemic has caught us completely by surprise, and we’re reacting to it in a totally new and unique way. But a closer look into history will reveal that this is by no means the first, or even deadliest pandemic we have faced, and it will absolutely not be the last. The Spanish flu. The bubonic plague. These were terrible diseases that wiped out massive populations of people in a fraction of the time COVID-19 has had to do the same. But even these deadly plagues, with all of their historical impact, can’t compete with the myriad of disease and destruction that befell the native American civilizations once Europe arrived to the continent.
Nowadays, diseases like smallpox, measles, typhus, or cholera are still scary, but we have antibiotics and other medical things to negate the damage. Smallpox itself was entirely eradicated in the natural world. But to the varied people of the Americas, it was a death sentence. Having been separated from their Old World ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, they had no knowledge or comprehension of these diseases, and never developed any sort of immunity towards them. This isn’t to say the Americas were bereft of sickness, but the bacteria and viruses that Europe and Asia spent centuries getting used to were unknown to them at the time. So when Columbus broke the barrier between them and reintroduced the Americas to the Old World, there was nothing they could do to prepare. Exact numbers are impossible to know, and predictions range anywhere from just 60 thousand to over 8 million. Either way. it was an apocalypse. Entire cities and societies were eradicated, and by the time proper exploration of the land by the Spanish and English began, whoever remained represented a remnant of their former prosperity.
It saddens me to think about all the great and powerful empires that dotted the American continent that once existed, as motivated by trade and war as any European power. The Spaniards who plundered these lands had a great advantage over these people for many reasons, but none moreso than the cultural and societal bravado they possessed. But this was merely a de facto, as whatever strength the indigeonous had left was splintered into chaos and a vaccuum of power. While the world may be connected together more than ever before, this type of natural threat still exists. We may understand how viruses work, and how best to prevent them, but still they remain, and wreak havoc on our societies. COVID-19 is not the greatest adversity our species has ever faced. Nor will it be the last. But it serves as a worrisome warning to what may come, and to whatever natural calamity may overpower our anthropogenic worldview. The native Americans had no idea what was coming for them. And we might not either, until it’s too late.
Lewis, S. L., & Maslin, M. A. (2015). Defining the anthropocene. Nature, 519(7542), 171–180. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14258
Lovell, W. G. (2020). From Columbus to COVID-19: Amerindianantecedents to the global pandemic. Journal of Latin American Geography. https://doi.org/10.1353/lag.0.0138