The Tyee has published my review of Douglas Preston's remarkable book Lost City of the Monkey God: Lessons for Canada from Hunt for Lost Jungle City. Excerpt:
It’s widely understood that the peoples of the Americas lacked immunity to European diseases for a simple reason: they had few domestic animals. Europeans, Asians, and Africans had domesticated cattle, horses, pigs, and poultry, and had contracted their animals’ diseases (measles is the human form of the cattle disease rinderpest). Over thousands of years, those peoples had developed some genetic resistance to those diseases, though they still took a terrible toll.
The first pandemics of the Americas
Columbus brought the first pandemics to the Americas — first to Caribbean islands like Hispaniola and Cuba, where the native populations vanished within decades. Then the native trade networks between the islands and the mainland spread diseases like measles and smallpox to regions that had never seen the Spanish newcomers.
So the White City was likely dead even before Cortes arrived in Mexico, where the same diseases enabled his conquest of the Aztecs. Mexico in 1500 had an estimated 20 million people. It took 400 years to restore the country’s pre-pandemic population.
The pandemics spread north and south, crippling the Inka Empire of Peru and destroying the advanced farming societies of what is now the U.S. south and midwest. Eventually they reached even the B.C. coast, where recurring waves of smallpox in the 18th and 19th centuries nearly wiped out a thriving indigenous population of scores of thousands.
All told, Preston argues, populations crashed to perhaps five per cent of their former numbers. The survivors and their cultures were as shattered as the sacred objects they had left in their deserted temples. The Europeans occupied half the planet thanks to the diseases they had unknowingly brought with them.
While the Americas had been free of European diseases, they had a few of their own. One was a variety of leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease carried by sand flies that flourish in the valley of the White City. Preston describes the expedition’s efforts to escape other diseases, but the sand flies got into their tents and netted hammocks. Weeks after the members had returned home, many of them began to notice sores or bites that weren’t getting better; in fact, they were getting worse.
Since this form of the disease, mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, can literally eat away the victim’s face, Preston and his colleagues were understandably terrified. Fortunately, the National Institutes of Health was able to care for them as part of an ongoing research project into the disease, and most of the expedition members have recovered. But it’s uncertain whether further exploration will be possible, given the persistent health hazards of the region.