Columbus Day may not get as much attention as our other holidays, but scientists are still fascinated by what Christopher Columbus’ arrival meant for the “New World” and how it shaped where we are today.
“It was a culture clash, obviously,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “But it also launched a clash of infectious diseases.”
Columbus and other visitors from Europe lived in agrarian societies and cities, he said. The viruses and bacteria that develop in farming and when large groups of people live together are different from those in a more nomadic society, like the American Indians.
Think about swine flu and bird flu, Prescott said. We’re always on the lookout for viruses that pass from humans to animals, mutate DNA, and then return to humans.
“Well, that didn’t just start last year. So long as humans have been raising livestock, we’ve been passing viruses back and forth,” he said. “When explorers from Europe reached the Americas, they brought livestock and they brought diseases and the result was devastating.”
In Hispaniola, Columbus’ first stop in the Americas, the native Taino population (an indigenous Arawak people) had no immunity to new infectious diseases, including smallpox, measles and influenza. There were an estimated 250,000 indigenous people in Hispaniola in 1492. By 1517, only 14,000 remained.
Some historians say the impact of European and African settlers in the New World was more destructive than the Black Death had been in medieval Europe, possibly killing off as much as 90 percent of the native populations.
Europeans did not walk away unscathed, however. The visitors to the Americas also contracted a number of diseases, including tuberculosis and an extremely virulent syphilis. When explorers returned to Europe, the diseases went with them and ran rampant on the populace of the Old World.
“Whether or not we celebrate Columbus Day, we should all celebrate how far our immune systems have come,” Prescott said. “Now we just have to worry that they’re too good, which might be behind the rise in allergies and autoimmune diseases.”