Columbian Exchange Diseases – Latin America and the Old World

The Columbian Exchange diseases brought to Latin America, population decline and the possible transmission of New World diseases to the Old World.

While the Columbian Exchange brought about a comparatively balanced exchange of food products, livestock, culture and ideas between the Old World and the New, the exchange of disease was far from even. The newly arrived Europeans were to bring with them a frightening array of communicable diseases against which the native inhabitants of the New World possessed no natural immunity. These diseases were to devastate the indigenous population, spreading rapidly throughout what is now known as Latin America.

Old World Diseases Brought to Latin America

The Columbian Exchange unleashed a variety of diseases upon the native inhabitants of Latin America. The first wave of Spanish sailors brought with them a host of European diseases, while African slaves would later carry tropical diseases directly from Africa to the Americas. The list of diseases inflicted upon the New World is generally considered to comprise the following:

amoebic dysentery
bubonic plague
chicken pox
common cold
scarlet fever
whooping cough
yellow fever

There is still some debate regarding the diseases brought to Latin America during the Columbian Exchange and those that may have already been present. Tuberculosis was once believed to have been brought from the Old World, but skeletal remains found in South America have since provided evidence of tuberculosis before the Spanish arrival.

Historian Joseph Patrick Byrne highlights the possibility that a weak strain of malaria may have been present in Latin America before the Columbian Exchange. He also points to a 1946 investigation by physiologist Sherburne Cook in which Cook claims that the Aztecs may have experienced a potential typhus epidemic long before 1492. However, as Byrne states, “there is no way to link the condition to a modern disease typology with reasonable certainty”.

Columbian Exchange – Disease & Population Decline in Latin America

Influenza, typhus, measles, mumps, malaria, yellow fever and, in particular, smallpox all had a devastating effect upon the native population of Latin America. With smallpox at the forefront, Latin America’s native population declined rapidly after the arrival of the Spanish. According to historian Robert B. Kent, “native populations probably declined about 90 percent during the first century after contact”.

Direct acts of warfare, subjugation and maltreatment by the Spanish certainly contributed to this catastrophic death toll. However, disease was now the most fearsome killer in the New World. Smallpox alone is believed to have claimed the lives of anywhere between 20 to 80 percent of the population, the higher figure perhaps reflecting the cumulative effect of a number of different Old World diseases.

Columbian Exchange Diseases – New World to Old World

Syphilis is the only disease that may have found its way from the New World to the Old. This exchange, however, is far from certain. Outbreaks of syphilis occurred in European port cities during the mid 1500s, leading some scholars to believe that the disease had been brought to Europe by men returning from the New World.

Evidence exists of syphilis in Latin America prior to 1492. The disease could have been transferred to the Old World as a result of sexual contact between European men and native women. However, the evidence is largely speculative and the issue remains unresolved.

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