The indigenous Native American population was decimated by diseases brought along by the European settlers. Diseases like the plague, chicken pox, influenza, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, tuberculosis, and whooping cough. The Europeans who first colonized the Americas were a veritable Pandora’s box of disease and death.
It is estimated that a staggering 80-90% of the entire Native American population was lost to diseases brought by the new American settlers. But what about the Native American diseases? Weren’t the Europeans susceptible to them? Why didn’t the reverse happen?
Why Didn’t The Europeans Get Wiped Out By Native American Diseases?
The leading theory is based on the European’s mobility and heavy intermixing. For thousands of years, Europe had been a crossroads for trade and war. Trading could be had from the British Isles all the way to the shores of Japan. Because of this constant contact with outsiders, strangers and visitors from far away places, they had already encountered an extraordinary number of diseases and plagues. This made the average European’s immune system incredibly robust.
On the other hand, the Americas were quite isolated by comparison, virtually cut off from the rest of the world. While different groups of Native Americans did occasionally intermix and/or go to war with one another, it wasn’t remotely close to the breadth and scale of their counterparts across the Atlantic.
Variety: The Spice Of Life
Relative to the Europeans, the Native American’s immune system was virtually non-existent by comparison. Further compounding the problem was the fact that the Native Americans of early America were descendants from a very small, homogenous group – their gene pool was limited. Immune systems thrive on variety. The greater the variety of things an immune system experiences, the greater number of microbes it can immediately recognize and therefore destroy before causing harm.
Another contributing factor to the strength of the European immune system is that they had spent a long time around domestic animals. Domestic animals, like dogs, pigs and cows, were the source of the many diseases to afflict humans in the Old World. By contrast, Native Americans had very few domestic animals.
Not Totally Immune
Though, there may have been at least one Native American bug that wiped out quite a few Europeans. Contested and controversial, we might have the new world to thank for syphilis. The first known case of syphilis showed up in Italy in 1494. Many believe the Spanish contracted syphilis in Haiti and the Dominican Republic then gave it to the Italians and French at the siege of Naples.