Americapox: The Missing Plague

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Between the first Europeans arriving in 1492 and the Victorian age, the indigenous population of the New World dropped by at least 90%. The cause? Not the conquistadors and company -- they killed lots of people but their death count is nothing compared to what they brought with them: small pox, typhus, tuberculosis, influenza, bubonic plague, cholera, mumps, measles and more leapt from those first explorers to the costal tribes, then onward the microscopic invaders spread through a hemisphere of people with no defenses against them. Tens of millions died. These germs decided the fate of these battles long before the fighting started. Now ask yourself: why didn't the Europeans get sick? If New-Worlders were vulnerable to old-world diseases, then surely Old-Worlders would be vulnerable to New World diseases. Yet, there was no Americapox spreading eastward infecting Europe and cutting the population from 90 million to 9. Had Americapox existed it would have rather dampened European ability for transatlantic expansion. To answer why this didn't happen: we need first to distinguish regular diseases -- like the common cold -- from what we'll call plagues. 1. Spread quickly between people. Sneezes spread plagues faster than handshakes which are faster than closeness. Plagues use more of this than this. 2. They kill you quickly or you become immune. Catch a plague and you're dead within seven to thirty days; survive and you'll never get it again. Your body has learned to fight it. You might still carry it -- the plague lives in you, you can still spread it -- but it can't hurt you. The surface answer to this question isn't that Europeans had better immune systems to fight off New World plagues -- it's that the New World didn't have plagues for them to catch. They had regular diseases but there was no Americapox to carry. These are history's biggest killers, and they all come from the Old World. But why? Let's dig deeper, and talk cholera: a plague that spreads if your civilization does a bad job of separating drinking water from pooping water. London was terrible at this, making it the cholera capital of the world. Cholera can rip through dense neighborhoods, killing swaths of the population before moving onward. But that's the key: it has to move on. In a small, isolated group, a plague like cholera cannot survive -- it kills all available victims, leaving only the immune and then theres nowhere to go -- it's a fire that burns through its fuel. But a city -- shining city on the hill -- to which rural migrants flock, where hundreds of babies are born a day: this is sanctuary for the fire of plague; fresh kindling comes to it. The plague flares and smolders and flares and smolders again -- impossible to extinguish. Historically, in city borders, plagues killed faster than people could breed. Cities grew because more people moved to them than died inside of them. Cities only started growing from their own population in the 1900s when medicine finally left its leaches and bloodletting phase and entered its soap and soup phase, giving humans some tools to slow death. But before that a city was an unintentional playground for plagues and a grim machine to sort the immune from the rest. So the deeper answer is that the New World didn't have plagues because the New World didn't have big, dense, terribly sanitized deeply interconnected cities for plagues to thrive. OK, but The New World wasn't completely barren of cities, and tribes weren't completely isolated. Otherwise the newly-arrived smallpox in the 1400s couldn't have spread. Cities are only part of the puzzle: they're required for plagues, but cities don't make the germs that start the plagues -- those germs come from the missing piece. Now, most germs don't want to kill you, for the same reason you don't want to burn down your house; germs live in you. Chronic diseases like leprosy are terrible because they're very good at living in you and not killing you. Plague lethality is an accident, a misunderstanding, because the germs that cause them don't know they're in humans; they think they're in this. Plagues come from animals. Whooping cough comes from pigs, as does flu, as well as from birds. Our friend the cow alone is responsible for measles, tuberculosis, and smallpox. For the cow these diseases are no big deal -- like colds for us. But when cow germs get in humans, the things they do to make a cow a little sick to spread make humans very sick. Deadly sick. Now, germs jumping species like this is extraordinarily rare. That's why generations of humans can spend time around animals just fine. Being the patient zero of a new animal-to-human plague is winning a terrible lottery. But a colonial-age city raises the odds: there used to be animals everywhere; horses, herds of livestock in the streets, open slaughterhouses, meat markets pre-refrigeration, and rivers of human and animal excrement running through it all. A more perfect environment for diseases to jump species could hardly be imagined. So the deeper answer is that plagues come from animals, but so rarely that you have to raise the odds with many chances for infection and even then the new-born plague needs a fertile environment to grow. The Old World had the necessary pieces in abundance. But why was a city like London filled with sheep and pigs and cows and Tenochtitlan wasn't? This brings us to the final level, for this video anyway. Some animals can be put to human use -- this is what domestication means: animals you can breed, not just hunt. Forget for a the moment the modern world: go back to 10,000BC when tribes of humans reached just about everywhere. If you were in one of these tribes, what local animals could you capture, alive, and successfully pen to breed? Maybe you're in North Dakota and thinking about catching a Buffalo: an unpredictable, violent tank on hooves, that can outrun you across the planes, leap over your head and travels in herds thousands strong. Oh, and you have no horses to help you -- because there are no horses on the continent. Horses live here -- and won't be brought over until too late. It's just you, a couple buddies, and stone-based tools. American Indians didn't fail to domesticate buffalo because they couldn't figure it out. They failed because it's a buffalo. No one could do it -- buffalo would have been amazing creatures to put to human work back in BC, but it's not going to happen -- humans have only barely domesticated buffalo with all our modern tools. The New World didn't have good animal candidates for domestication. Almost everything big enough to be useful is also too dangerous, or too agile. Meanwhile the fertile crescent to central Europe had cows and pigs and sheep and goats: easy-peasy animals comparatively begging to be domesticated. A wild boar is something to contend with if you only have stone tools but it's possible to catch and pen and breed and feed to eat -- because pigs can't leap to the sky or crush all resistance beneath their hooves. In the New World the only native domestication contestant was: llamas. They're better than nothing -- which is probably why the biggest cities existed in South America -- but they're no cow. Ever try to manage a heard of llamas in the mountains of Peru? Yeah, you can do it, but it's not fun. Nothing but drama, these llamas. These might seem, cherry-picked examples, because aren't there hundreds of thousands of species of animals? Yes, but when you're stuck at the bottom of the tech tree, almost none of them can be domesticated. From the dawn of man until this fateful meeting, humans domesticated; maybe a baker's dozen of unique species the world over. And even to get that high a number you need to stretch it to include honeybees and silkworms; nice to have, but you can't build a civilization on a foundation of honey alone. These early tribes weren't smarter, or better at domestication. The Old World had more valuable and easy animals. With dogs, herding sheep and cattle is easier. Now humans have a buddy to keep an eye on the clothing factory, and the milk and cheeseburger machine, and the plow-puller. Now farming is easier, which means there's more benefit to staying put, which means more domestication, which means more food which means more people and more density and oh look where we're going. Citiesville: population: lots; bring your animals; plagues welcome. That is the full answer: The lack of New World animals to domesticate limited not only exposure to germs sources but also limited food production, which limited population growth, which limited cities, which made plagues in the New World an almost impossibility. In the Old [World], exactly the reverse, and thus a continent full of plague and a continent devoid of it. So when ships landed in the New World, there was no Americapox to bring back. The game of civilization has nothing to do with the players, and everything to do with the map. Access to domesticated animals in numbers and diversity is the key resource to bootstrapping a complex society from nothing -- and that complexity brings with it, unintentionally, a passive biological weaponry devastating to outsiders. Start the game again but move the domesticable animals across the sea and history's arrow of disease and death flows in the opposite direction. This still does leave one last question. Just why are some animals domesticable and others not? Why couldn't American Indians domesticate deer? Why can't zebras be domesticated? They look just like horses. And what does it mean to tame an animal? To answer that, click here for part 2. This video has been brought to you by and was a presentation of Diamond's theory as laid out in his book Gun, Germs and Steel. If you found this video interesting you should go right now to and get a copy of the book. There is so much more in this than could ever been explained in a short video -- Guns, Germs and Steel is the history book to rule all history books. Audible has over 180,000 things for you to listen to. It is an endless source of interestingness. So once again, please to go get a 30-day free trial and let them know that you came from this channel. Audiobooks are a big part of my life and I think they should be a big part of your life. Why not get started today?
Channel: CGP Grey
Views: 5,663,395
Rating: 4.9047956 out of 5
Keywords: cgpgrey, education, hello internet, american indians
Channel Id: undefined
Length: 11min 12sec (672 seconds)
Published: Mon Nov 23 2015
Reddit Comments

I have now been informed on a question I never thought of, great video. It does seem a bit different from his other videos, possibly a slower pace?

πŸ‘οΈŽ︎ 1834 πŸ‘€οΈŽ︎ u/dalematt88 πŸ“…οΈŽ︎ Nov 23 2015 πŸ—«︎ replies

Well I thought I could mention that this all sounded very much like the ideas from Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" n the comments until he mentioned it himself at the end. :(

Still whenever Diamond's theories get brought up here on reddit, the actual experts on history and stuff aren't to terribly impressed, but I like his books.

One thing I feel compelled to add was that the horse, one of the most useful domesticated animal ever, actually evolved on the American continent.

North America did have horses. They just all died out under mysterious circumstances together with a host of other potentially useful megafaune very coincidentally just around the time humans stated to settle in the environments in earnest.

We will never know if for example Glyptodons would have made for good pets (giant armored pets), because they all dies out shortly after encountering humans.

The thing with the buffalo being very hard to domesticate seems to ignore what sort of monster a wild Aurochs was. There is a reason so many early religions and cave-paintings featured bulls and bull-gods. These beast were scary. It is amazing that we ever made cows of them.

Julius Caesar wrote about his encounter with these creatures:

"...those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. The size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments."

Not exactly easily domesticable.

The last one of these creatures by the way died after the new world was discovered and thy City of New York was founded by Europeans.

One thing that Diamond was quite insistent upon in his books, which sort of goes against what was said in this video, was about the shuffling of animals. Diamond seems to think that the orientation of the continents plays a role here. with Eurasia being west-east oriented it has areas of similar climate that stretch across the continent and allow for the transplantation of crops and animals along latitudes, while the Americas is North south oriented and you can't grow the same sort of crops and raise the same sort of animals high up north that you can in more southerly latitudes.

πŸ‘οΈŽ︎ 300 πŸ‘€οΈŽ︎ u/Loki-L πŸ“…οΈŽ︎ Nov 23 2015 πŸ—«︎ replies

Here's the official discussion on the CGP Grey subreddit.

πŸ‘οΈŽ︎ 403 πŸ‘€οΈŽ︎ u/bonez656 πŸ“…οΈŽ︎ Nov 23 2015 πŸ—«︎ replies

Turkeys and dogs were domesticated by native Americans, but as the video said - their civilizations were not conducive to spreading plagues.

πŸ‘οΈŽ︎ 112 πŸ‘€οΈŽ︎ u/CaptainNoBoat πŸ“…οΈŽ︎ Nov 23 2015 πŸ—«︎ replies


Heh. But damn with globalization the way it is now, could you imagine how terrifying a geniune plague would be now? Six billion people dropping dead everywhere.

πŸ‘οΈŽ︎ 262 πŸ‘€οΈŽ︎ u/Dick-fore πŸ“…οΈŽ︎ Nov 23 2015 πŸ—«︎ replies

I really enjoyed the Civilization theme and references throughout.

πŸ‘οΈŽ︎ 154 πŸ‘€οΈŽ︎ u/[deleted] πŸ“…οΈŽ︎ Nov 23 2015 πŸ—«︎ replies

Article By Wiki The history of smallpox extends into pre-history; the disease likely emerged in human populations about 10,000 BC. The earliest credible evidence of smallpox is found in the Egyptian mummies of people who died some 3000 years ago. During the 18th century the disease killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans each year, including five reigning monarchs, and was responsible for a third of all blindness. Between 20 and 60% of all those infectedβ€”and over 80% of infected childrenβ€”died from the disease.

During the 20th century, it is estimated that smallpox was responsible for 300–500 million deaths. In the early 1950s an estimated 50 million cases of smallpox occurred in the world each year. As recently as 1967, the World Health Organization estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease and that two million died in that year. After successful vaccination campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the WHO certified the eradication of smallpox in December 1979.

πŸ‘οΈŽ︎ 44 πŸ‘€οΈŽ︎ u/NoraStevenson πŸ“…οΈŽ︎ Nov 23 2015 πŸ—«︎ replies

I'm trying to click part 2 at the end of the video, but it just directs to his channel page. I also can't find any part 2 video. Can someone send a direct link?

πŸ‘οΈŽ︎ 96 πŸ‘€οΈŽ︎ u/Gogo01 πŸ“…οΈŽ︎ Nov 23 2015 πŸ—«︎ replies

Kind of selective. New world had plagues over and over. There are cities abandonded over and over, not just Tenochtitlan. Old world tended to abandon cities rather than keep trying to occupy them.

Also, syphilis is considered to have come from the new world. Could be considered america pox I guess. Used to cause insantity and death in Europeans. Now we have been bred to just kind of be annoyed by it.

πŸ‘οΈŽ︎ 87 πŸ‘€οΈŽ︎ u/randarrow πŸ“…οΈŽ︎ Nov 23 2015 πŸ—«︎ replies
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