Editorials | Issues | October 2006
|Disease Tracker Wants to Rewrite Mexican History|
Marion Lloyd - Houston Chronicle
Here's what history tells us about the Spanish conquest of Mexico: Armed with modern weapons and Old World diseases, several hundred Spanish soldiers toppled the Aztec empire in 1521. And by the end of the century, the invaders' guns, steel and germs had wiped out 90 percent of the natives.
|The term Black Legend refers to a centuries-old view of Spain and its people as particularly cruel, prejudiced, and greedy. Some of the literature that promoted the Black Legend came from European Protestants hostile to Catholic Spain. But part of the Black Legend emerged from the writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish bishop who served in Mexico and wrote a vivid account of the conquistadors' brutality to the Indians. Although modern historical research has shown that other nations were guilty of similar cruelties, traces of the Black Legend linger on as negative images of the Spanish element in Latin American culture.|
It's a key piece of the "Black Legend," the tales of atrocities committed by the Spanish Inquisition and colonizers of the New World.
But it may be just that — legend, according to Rodolfo Acuña-Soto, a Harvard-trained epidemiologist.
He argues that an unknown indigenous hemorrhagic fever may have killed the bulk of Mexico's native population, which plummeted from an estimated 22 million in 1519, when the Spaniards arrived, to 2 million in 1600.
And he warns that the fever — which the Aztecs called cocoliztli in their Nahuatl language — may still be lurking in remote rural areas of Mexico.
Not everyone buys the theory. But Acuña-Soto, who spent 12 years poring over colonial archives, census data, graveyard records and autopsy reports, is convinced that many historians are wrong about what killed the Aztecs.
"The problem with history is that it's very ideological," he said. "In this case, it was a beautiful way of accusing the Spaniards of unimaginable cruelties and of decimating the population of Mexico."
Spanish colonizers were far from blameless, he quickly points out. By subjecting the Indians to slave-like conditions and malnutrition, they made them more vulnerable to the disease, he said.
"Of course, there's a terrible story of cruelty and disease that killed a huge amount of indigenous people," he said. "But we don't know what this disease was."
Acuña-Soto, who has published his findings in several international scholarly journals, is a research professor at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
Three major epidemics together make up what he calls the "megadeath."
Most scholars agree that the first bout, from 1519 to 1521, was caused by smallpox brought over by the Spaniards and to which the natives had no resistance. The disease, characterized by high fevers and pustules on the skin, may have killed as many as 8 million Indians in Mexico.
But Acuña-Soto claims another two epidemics in 1545 and 1576 were caused by an even more gruesome and lethal disease. The first killed between 7 million and 17 million people, and the second wiped out another 2 million, or half the remaining population, he said.
His arguments are largely based on a first-person account by Francisco Hernandez, the personal physician to King Phillip II of Spain, who witnessed the 1576 epidemic. The symptoms he described did not sound to Acuña-Soto like any of the usual suspects — smallpox, measles or typhus.
"Blood flowed from the ears and in many cases blood truly gushed from the nose," the royal doctor wrote in Latin to a friend. "The fevers were contagious, burning and continuous, all of them pestilential, in most part lethal."
"The tongue was dry and black," he went on. "Urine of the colors of sea-green, vegetal green and black."
The text, which disappeared for centuries before turning up in 1954, has only recently been cited by scholars. And differences among translations have fueled the historic debate.
If cocoliztli had been a hemorrhagic fever, Acuña-Soto reasons, Spaniards could not have brought it with them. Hemorrhagic diseases — which include such terrifying killers as Ebola and the Marburg and Lassa fevers — do not readily pass from one person to another.
Not everyone is convinced.
"The disease came from animals that didn't exist in the Americas," said Elsa Malvido, a Mexican colonial historian who has spent 40 years tracing the origins of the diseases that decimated the Aztecs. She argues that the later epidemics were caused by bubonic plague carried to Mexico by black rats aboard the Spanish galleons.
She cites indigenous codices that describe a plague of rats preceding the epidemics.
However, Malvido acknowledged, "As long as I don't have a skeleton to extract DNA, of course, these are all hypotheses."
Acuña-Soto counters that the disease doesn't fit the pattern of bubonic plague, which he said tends to spread inland from coastal areas and kills a minority of those infected. In contrast, he said, cocoliztli originated in central Mexico City and had the most devastating impact in the highlands.
The later epidemics coincided with two major droughts, which may have magnified the impact of the disease, he said.
Acuña-Soto is also working on another controversial theory: That a native hemorrhagic disease may have triggered the collapse of the Maya civilization in the 9th century.
"While his argument for Mexico seems to make some sense, it certainly doesn't explain the rest of the continent," said Thomas M. Whitmore, an American geologist and the author of a book on epidemics in colonial Mexico.
However, Whitmore added, "It certainly is possible."
Acuña-Soto acknowledges that proving his theories won't be easy. "Nobody who's alive has seen something similar, so we have to work with descriptions," he said.
He thinks he has identified at least 27 smaller outbreaks of cocoliztli, including one in 1738 that devastated a mission in San Antonio, now a part of Texas. It killed all but 182 of the 837 residents, according to two Franciscan missionaries.
The latest record of such a disease was in 1928 in Mexico City, Acuña-Soto said.
"Is it going to come back?" he said. "That's the big question."