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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 274-275

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A Pest in the Land: New World Epidemics in a Global Perspective. By Suzanne Austin Alchon. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003. Pp. ix, 214. Maps. Illustrations. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $45.00 cloth; $22.95 paper.

As the title of this new book suggests, the author's intent is to demonstrate that the catastrophic decline in New World aboriginal population following the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century was not exceptional if one considers global epidemiological patterns. The study focuses on four issues: the history of disease and its effects in the Old World before 1500; the nature of the disease environment in the New World when compared with the Old in 1492; the introduction, spread, and mortality/morbidity rates occasioned by diseases in the New World after 1492; and the interrelationships between demographic trends and institutional structures and practices in the New World under colonial rule.

That the Old World had suffered massive demographic disturbances in its evolution to 1000 AD few would deny. But the fact is, by that date the majority of the diseases had been reduced to an endemic status. As the author makes clear, only with the opening of the Asian caravan trading network did new scourges enter the scene—the Black Death (bubonic plague) and a host of newcomers that affected the non-immune population of the entire region from India, through the Middle East to Western Europe. And one should note that we are still unsure of exactly which combination of diseases were involved in specific outbreaks. Equally undeniable is the [End Page 274] fact that the long relative isolation of the New World peoples with a characteristically homogeneous gene pool (in spite of the author's attempts to suggest that African and Asian contacts were of significance) made them especially prone to the effects of introduced Old World pathogens. But before considering the effects of such, the author attempts quite unsuccessfully to suggest that the New World populations had a history of epidemic diseases comparable to that of the Old. A close reading of those pages reveals descriptions of famine, malnutrition, and warfare, but only an occasional assertion of the possible effects of what are allegedly epidemics—of typhus and influenza. The problematics of the historical descriptions of such alleged diseases is underemphasized, and the fact that the killer diseases of the Old World (measles, smallpox, plague) originated as zoonoses (diseases communicated from animals) and that the necessary animals were absent from the New World prior to the Spanish conquest is given short shift by the author. No recognized scholar subscribes to the alleged "long-cherished myth of a pre-Columbian paradise" (p. 59) and to raise it yet again is an unnecessary canard.

Chapters 2 and 4 provide a useful restatement of the data on the epidemics and pandemics caused by the devastating Old World pathogens—smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, and bubonic (or pneumonic) plague—but lack any new data or interpretations. Population reductions of 75 to 90 percent became common and, as one might have expected, initial "contact" was normally by conquest: the battles were unwittingly demographic, especially in the Latin American colonial region. Although Chapter 5 attempts to argue that the varied colonialist policies in the New World provided a significant set of variables that affected the rate and direction of infections and disease impacts, again, little new evidence is presented. Migrations of all types undeniably affected the spread of diseases, as too did the various harsh labor systems and slavery employed by each of the colonial powers. What we are not given are details of the changed living conditions of the populations involved—their changed food supplies, their housing, their urbanized locations, their racial mixing—factors that may or may not have been significant in an explanation of the depressed demographic state of the New World through the late nineteenth century.

In spite of the book's backcover blurb stating that "this timely study effectively overturns the notion of New World...


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