Americapox: The Missing Plague


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 audible.com
and was a presentation of Diamond’s theory as laid out in his book Gun, Germs and Steel.
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