Reverse Disease Transfer Question

While the white man was spreading west across North America during the 19th century it’s well documented that the Indians living on the plains were exposed to, and succumbed to, a variety of diseases passed to them from the settlers and soldiers. But were there also diseases that were passed from the Indians to the settlers?

Syphilis

Wow! Did the Indians have any effective treatment for the disease at the time?

Given how easily Syphilis is transmitted from one person to another it must have been a real scourge for them…

The syphilis story is controversial. There is some evidence that syphilis may have been present in Europe before contact with North America.

And I suppose it’s my turn to mention “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond, in which he posits geographically based explanations for why Europe conquered America, and not the other way around. The “germs” part basically boiled down to the fact that in the Old World, humans lived in much closer contact with animals than they did in the New World, and did so for much longer, leading to a whole zoo of various diseases that the New World people had no resistance to.

In addition, aboriginal Americans had passed through a population bottleneck, dramatically reducing the variety of immune system genes in the population. So, not only were they exposed to fewer diseases, they had a poorer toolkit for dealing with new diseases.

The evidence against syphilis coming from the Americas is pretty thin, but it’s not established orthodoxy that that’s what happened.

I believe I got both these tidbits from 1491 by Charles Mann.

It is a main thesis of both Guns, Germs, & Steel and 1491 that the Native Americans did not have significant exposure to epidemic diseases on anything like the scale the Europeans did. They lacked not just the germs to pass to the Europeans, they essentially lacked the entire category of what we call “epidemic” (meaning you get infected and then recover or die) diseases. The reasons this is the case are detailed in those books, but basically boil down to massively longer European exposure to living with domesticated herd animals, and perhaps some element of luck.

I’ve never heard of anything going the other way that might be plausible except the controversial supposition about syphilis. Certainly the exchange of germs was either entirely or almost entirely one-sided.

Thanks everyone. I was familiar with how Europeans decimated Indian populations with disease, especially the earliest settlers, but I hadn’t read about disease flowing in the other direction. Had there been more of that it might have slowed down the inevitable somewhat…

Montezuma’s Revenge?

There is a chart about halfway down the Wikipedia article on the Columbian Exchange that illustrates how one-sided the disease trading was.