Why Didn’t the Vikings Bring Disease to the Americas? March 17, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
It is well known that viruses proved absolutely essential in the colonization of the Americas. Unlike in Africa and Asia native populations died on a massive scale as they came into contact with viruses from animals and people, viruses that had been blunted by human immune systems over several thousand years in Europe. By some estimates 80% of the population of the Americas died by these viruses, numbers and quantities that are almost impossible to come to terms with. And of course, this had consequences on the ground. Europeans had a notable technological edge against native peoples in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but not that notable. The waves of death sweeping ahead of them, as European conquistadors moved into the interior, were far more important than gunpowder in assuring European domination. For example, one case of small-pox carried into Mexico by Cortez’ men did more ‘good’ than his entire army: the Spanish were waging biological warfare without realising it.
All of this is well known. But now the mystery. Why didn’t the American Indians encounter such horrors in the first established European contact with the Americas in the tenth century when Vikings turned up in Atlantic Canada? I have no idea why this should be so and have found no good scholarly discussion: scholars, in fact, seem to be aware of the problem but shrug it off. A few possibilities.
1) Contact between native peoples and visiting Vikings was too slight: given that we know that there was some breeding between the groups and given too that in the case of small pox even a raid on an infected village was enough to transmit illness, I find this difficult to credit.
2) There was transmission and half of all Inuit etc died: if so the Vikings did not notice (possible, our sources are slim) and there is no evidence on the ground. We would also have to assume that at some place in the far north the virus was stopped by natural barriers from spreading right through the Americas.
3) Viruses spread less easily in the north: I am no scientist but I wonder if colder temperatures, say, or even something as silly as more layers of clothing might make a difference here?!
4) The Vikings did not have enough interesting viruses: perhaps by this date the Icelanders and their Greenland kin had not themselves been exposed to some of the viruses that would cause havoc in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
I’m really curious and I really don’t know: any thoughts? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
17 March 2014: Some great answers here. Leif writes: The native populations (both Inuit and Beothuk) that came into contact with the old Norse were small and geographically isolated. Thus, the territory of this band was extensive, and if we can assume that other bands used a similarly large area, the size of the Beothuk population would have been relatively small. There is good evidence that the Beothuk population amounted to about 500 to 700 people at the time of first contact. Since Newfoundland is quite a large island, most of it would have been unpopulated. There were no natives living near L’Anse aux Meadows in the year 1000 AD. Given these conditions, the afflicted would either die or recover before they could spread a communicable disease. Source: Newfoundland and Labrador heritage 1998, Ingeborg Marshall on behalf of the Beothuk Institute. [Based on Ingeborg Marshall, A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk(Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, ©1996).] Revised by Ingeborg Marshall, February, 2012. Accessed 16 March 2014. PAB writes The first and most mortal of the pandemics unleased upon the Americas was smallpox. Smallpox requires a minimum human population density in order to sustain itself. This is often expressed as having to be “dense”, as may be found in a regions dotted with thriving farming communities. Survivors win immunity, and in a given affected population, it will be their offspring who, after coming to comprise a sufficient portion of the population, will be infected. In continental environs with vast swathes thickly peopled by farmers, smallpox could persist, ferociously surging when and where large numbers of vulnerable offspring came about. The exceedingly sparse populations of the insular western Vikings presented opposite circumstances, particularly in Greenland. This situation would have acted as a barrier to transmission to the New World. The first recorded smallpox epidemic in Iceland was in 1241, arriving via the area of Denmark. Tacitus from Detritus writes: My suspicion is #2. Considerable mortality but it was so long until the next Europeans turned up that the populations had recovered. Option #1 is implausible. And regards the Vikings not having interesting infestations, recall that they were the great sea travelers of the age. Hard to imagine that that had not visited a few ports where the assorted poxes and fluxes of the world were much in evidence.As to viral epidemics being attenuated in the Far North, consider this link. Our best documented modern plague the 1918 influenza pandemic hit Alaska like a ton of bricks. On another historical note, some of the best genetic data on the pandemic came from Alaska. Several corpses were recovered intact from the permafrost, allowing scientists in high level biosuits the chance to determine the genetic nature of the 1918 bug. Norm writes: A bit of # one would be my guess. The people living in Labrador were few in number and spread out, a sick person had less chance of spreading the fun around. We find the same factor in very virulent bugs like Ebola, they fail to spread in most cases because they kill before the victim can travel far enough to spread the bug. Airplanes and automobiles have been the reason we know of Ebola . Smallpox, diphtheria,cholera all killed millions in the Americas when the Spanish came along; the Spanish invaded areas with large population density, the trio were fast killers but not fast enough to kill their hosts before they were able to spread. And we don’t know that the Vikings did not spread their germs in the Americas, the Mayan collapse was in the 800-900 AD time span, about the same time the Vikings were starting to get out and about. KMH writes: My response at first glance is the answer may lie in the geographical location of the Vikings before they set sail to America. If they departed from Iceland or Greenland, the seas may have provided a barrier to transmission of diseases from the mainland. Once they settled in these relatively remote areas further communication with the mainland may have been rather sparse, as I understand it, inhibiting disease transmission. Those who actually came from the mainland to America may not have interacted regularly enough with the southern cultures to become a fertile ground for the viruses. Animals were always important (perhaps as original sources) in the diseases humans developed immunity to and carried with them, but Vikings don’t seem to have emphasized domesticated animals – other than to steal and slaughter them during their raids. James H finishes off: I might be wrong here, but I don’t remember that many stories of Euro disease transmission in South America. North and Central America yes, but not South. Perhaps I just haven’t read them or forgot if I had.’ thanks to all!!!
18 March 2014: Leif writes with an afterthought. The Norse colony in Greenland numbered somewhere between 3000 and 5000 souls at its peak in the 13th century. The Western settlement, from which the Norse sailed to Vinland, numbered about 1000 at its peak, and was considerably smaller in the year 1000. It can be considered the most isolated European settlement in the middle ages. The meeting between the Norse and the North American Natives would have involved two very isolated populations.’ Thanks Leif