Why Native Americans Didn’t Wipe Out Europeans With Diseases

Emily Upton 13
Greg H. asks: Diseases from Europe wiped out most of the Indians, so why didn’t the Europeans also get wiped out by diseases from America?

native-american-diseaseWhile estimates vary, approximately 20 million people are believed to have lived in the Americas shortly before Europeans arrived. Around 95% of them were killed by European diseases. So why didn’t 19 out of 20 Europeans die from Native American diseases?

The short answer is that Europeans simply had more robust immune systems. Several factors contributed to this: first, Europeans had been the caretakers of domestic animals for thousands of years, and had over time grown (somewhat) immune to the common diseases that accompanied the domestication of such food sources. Native Americans, on the other hand, were largely hunters and gatherers, and even in some domestication cases, it’s thought exposure was limited.  For instance, as Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel states,

The Incas had llamas, but llamas aren’t like European cows and sheep. They’re not milked, they’re not kept in large herds, and they don’t live in barns and huts alongside humans. There was no significant exchange of germs between llamas and people.

Second, Europeans lived in more densely populated areas than Native Americans. When so many humans live together in relatively close quarters (particularly with lack of good, or any, sewage systems and the like), disease spreads quickly with the general population continually getting exposed to numerous pathogens. The Europeans’ bodies had to adapt to dealing with many of those diseases, and for those who survived, their immune systems thrived as a result.

The third factor is travel and exchange. Groups of people and animals moved around a lot in Europe and had interactions particularly through war and trade, resulting in the spread of disease across continents—and, eventually, some level of immunity for the survivors.

All of these things resulted in Europeans being regularly exposed to many more pathogens than Native Americans were. The Europeans’ immune systems simply developed to ward off the worst of some of the nastier diseases that incapacitated entire Native American populations. That same immunity protected them from diseases that Native Americans might have given them, or at least made it so the new diseases that they encountered were not as deadly.

That said, it should be noted that Europeans were also commonly killed off by the diseases they brought to the New World. It’s just that over time those who were more susceptible to these diseases died off and the survivors’ immune systems had developed to the point where the general populace wasn’t typically being wiped out at rates anywhere close to 95%, though the numbers were often still extreme by today’s standards.

But contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t all one sided.  It’s believed that one Native American disease did slip on to the European ships and sailed onward to Europe doing some major damage in the process.  That disease was syphilis.

Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492. Just three years later, in 1495, the first syphilis epidemic broke out among armies in Italy at the Siege of Naples, seemingly brought by French soldiers who in turn probably got the disease from Spanish mercenaries. Because of the French popularly spreading it, syphilis was initially known as the “French disease.”

There was up until very recently some debate about whether or not syphilis was in fact a “New World” disease because there are over 50 skeletons that have been found with all the markings of syphilis being the cause of death and that were once thought to date to pre-Columbian times. However, advancements in dating technology and a recent (2011) comprehensive study published in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology looking at all of the skeletons placed those people’s deaths after Columbus returned from the Americas.

The initial syphilis epidemic is thought to have killed upwards of a few million Euopeans as it made its rounds. Artist Albrecht Dürer remarked,

God save me from the French disease. I know of nothing of which I am so afraid … Nearly every man has it and it eats up so many that they die.

The disease continued to be a problem into the 20th century. It’s caused by bacteria Treponema pallidum, which can attack the nervous system, heart, brain, and internal organs, causing a variety of health problems and, sometimes, death. A cure wasn’t developed until the 1940s with the development of penicillin.

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Bonus Facts:

  • To test penicillin’s effectiveness in treating syphilis and other STDs, researchers led by Dr. John Charles Cutler from the United States (funded by the Public Health Services, the Pan American Health Sanitary Bureau, and the National Institutes of Health) headed to Guatemala in 1946 and found prostitutes who had syphilis, getting them to then give it to unsuspecting Guatemalan soldiers, mental health patients, and prisoners.  They also directly infected certain individuals by “…direct inoculations made from syphilis bacteria poured into the men’s penises and on forearms and faces that were slightly abraded … or in a few cases through spinal punctures.” It isn’t known how many people died as a result of this as the results from the study were never published.  If you think that is bad, just wait a few days and we’ll tell you all about the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Dr. John Cutler was involved in that one to.  He faced no consequences for the numerous people that died in his experiments, and he even lead an illustrious and celebrated career including at one point becoming an assistant to the U.S. Surgeon General.
  • It’s believed that small pox was the first European disease that Native Americans encountered, and it was also the most deadly. Initially just one person is thought to have developed feverish symptoms on board the ship, which caused an outbreak amongst the Europeans. When they hit land, the disease spread like wildfire across the new continent. Smallpox was highly infections because of the blisters that broke out on an infections person. As Dr. Tim Brooks explains, “Because each of those blisters is packed full of smallpox particles, then if you burst a blister, fluid will come out and large numbers of viruses will be spilt onto whatever it touches. Ten to twelve days later, his friends would be taken ill, and then ten to twelve days after that, their friends. That kind of rate means the disease spreads exponentially.”
  • Syphilis got its name from a poem written by a Renaissance scholar in the 1500s. The main character is named Syphilus. When he angers a god, he gets infected by the disease.
  • Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease, and one of the symptoms is marks on the hands and face of the infected person. These marks could often be found during this time on Catholic priests, cardinals, and a pope. It showed that celibacy couldn’t be policed and was not always followed.  For reference, Catholic priests were first required to be celibate in 304 AD thanks to the Council of Elvira, which resulted in Canon 33 stating: “bishops, presbyters, and deacons and all other clerics… [must] abstain completely from their wives…”  However, this wasn’t widely adopted at this time and it wasn’t until the Second Lateran Council of 1139 when priests were forbidden to marry.  In 1563, the Council of Trent once again affirmed this stance on celibacy and against marriage. The priests are still human, however.  Martin Luther said it best when he stated, “Nature never lets up… We are all driven to the secret sin. To say it crudely but honestly, if it doesn’t go into a woman, it goes into your shirt.”
  • Some famous people who are thought to have had syphilis include Napoleon Bonaparte, Al Capone, Adolf Hitler, Oscar Wilde, Leo Tolstoy, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others.
  • While the Native American population was decimated by the arrival of Europeans,  the American Bison population (note: they are not Buffalo as is commonly said) saw the opposite happen. Before the arrival of the Europeans there is little evidence that there were massive herds on the scale that immigrants eventually encountered them at. In fact, evidence suggests that the Native Americans kept the bison populations regulated by various means. After the European diseases wiped out most of the Native Americans, the American Bison population exploded, becoming the most numerous large wild mammal on Earth until eventually hunted to near extinction within a few centuries after this population explosion. At their peak, it was estimated that there were nearly 100 million American Bison in existence, only a few centuries ago.
  • It has also been speculated that lack of genetic diversity may also have contributed to certain diseases wiping out such a huge percentage of Native American populations.  All Native Americans are thought to have descended from just a few very small groups of people. Thus, with this theory, a disease that one Native American is extremely susceptible to would have equally deadly effects on most all Native Americans unlike the more genetically diverse Europeans.

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  1. Andrew March 26, 2014 at 7:34 pm - Reply

    Should be “…had over time grown…” as opposed to …had overtime grown…



    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey March 26, 2014 at 10:37 pm - Reply

      @Andrew: Good catch. Fixed. Thanks!

  2. James Random March 27, 2014 at 9:06 pm - Reply

    Never realized 95% of Native Americans were killed off. Great topic.

    P.S. Thanks a lot France

    • Epobirs April 16, 2014 at 10:19 am - Reply

      Hardly anyone knew until relatively recently. The diseases traveled across the continent and did their damage long before the Europeans who’d settled on the East Coast got very far into the interior. The Indians they met were a greatly diminished remnant of the devastated population. The societal structures of those Indians were also devastated, which lead to further misconceptions about how these people lived. The Europeans simply had no way of knowing what things had been like a few decades earlier and it wasn’t until a few decades ago that archaeology found evidence of what had happened. 1493 by Charles Mann covers this pretty well.

  3. Jake Lakota April 1, 2014 at 6:07 am - Reply

    “Native Americans” is an idiotic PC term. If you were born in the US then you are a native american OTHERWISE where would you be a native? and I am SURE 99% of so-called African-Americans never set foot in Africa and yet, if a white South African came to the US and got his citizenship you would never even consider calling him AFRICAN-AMERICAN. Russians are Asian – now do they look anything like Japanese, Chinese etc? But PC doesn’t include them cause they is WHITE. Political correctness is a waste of time and utlimately offends everybody. Grow a pair and then ask yourself why does America come second?.

    • ApacheNestell April 1, 2014 at 6:24 pm - Reply

      and 3rd Native Americans lived in more densley populated areas Tenochtitlan with 250,000, and Cuzco with 250,000 larger then any of the European cities of that time we just bathed more, and had better sewage systems then Europeans at that time

    • Dave M April 6, 2014 at 10:09 pm - Reply

      So the way i see it is being dirty is a white attribute to be proud of. trailer trash may be the last to succumb to the next plague or perhaps the millions we’ve crammed into our densely over populated urban slums.
      The natives who are left, are still over coming the forgotten atrocities that have been committed upon our thanks giving comrades.
      Interesting idea “Jake Lakota” perhaps we should be calling the Caucasian population “Caucasian Americans” and give the natives there moniker back.

    • James June 20, 2014 at 4:16 pm - Reply

      @Jake Lakota

      I do believe that you ought to understand the distinctions we as human beings use in order to help give the world some order. Somebody from South Africa, white or black, who came to America and subsequently gained citizenship would still be referred to as being South African. This also stands true of anybody who came from Africa and did the same.

      African-American is a term for those Americans who have descended from their African ancestors many years prior. I feel that in spouting your “PC” rhetoric you are trying desperately to undermine their history and their struggle. Minimizing somebodies heritage just because it doesn’t sit well with you is not ok.

      As for your chop at the Native Americans, this is simply a matter of your astonishing ignorance throughout what seems to have been a lifetime of spectacular levels of self-absorption. The term originally used to describe the aboriginal peoples of America was Indians due to an error made by Columbus.
      (Columbus carried a passport in Latin from the Spanish monarchs that dispatched him ad partes Indie[3] (“toward the regions of India”) on their behalf. When he landed in the Antilles, Columbus referred to the resident peoples he encountered there as “Indians” in the mistaken belief that he had reached the Indian Ocean.)

      Even with his mistake recognized quite quickly, the name stuck. We now refer to them by term more fitting with their history and heritage as they truly were native to the land.

      TL;DR – If you are going to be a bigoted douchebag, at least research and understand what the hell you are talking about.

  4. ApacheNestell April 1, 2014 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    also Syphilies came from the French when they were marching to Italy through the Mountains

  5. Epobirs April 16, 2014 at 10:12 am - Reply

    A lack of genetic diversity did come to kill a massive number of Europeans. Not a lack of diversity in the people but in the potato that had been brought from the New World and became a major staple crop nearly everywhere it was introduced. Pretty much all of the potatoes were clones of the small sample brought back by early expeditions. When disease struck it caused crop failure on scale rarely matched in history and vast numbers starved, especially in Ireland.

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