Health and Disease in Human History

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The technologies and abilities encouraging human mobility have been an essential force in the shaping of global history. Ranging from footwear to airplanes, advancements in travel have resulted in both positive and negative consequences. A pioneering human spirit has led to extensive voyages seeking new lands, which explorers have found beneficial and detrimental. One of the most important components influencing the success or failure of exploration has been the effect of disease. It has acted as an important tool of conquest, as well as a useful deterrent against it. The transmission and spread of various sicknesses have proven effective in aiding colonization and extracting resources and wealth. It has also acted as a severe hindrance to explorers, devastating their expansionary efforts by means of physically debilitating them. The spread of disease across the globe has been a significant result of human mobility, and has perhaps been the most important environmental and biological factor in dictating the trajectories of colonization.

It is quite certain that, if not for the European diseases brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadors, the Americas would not have been conquered with such relative ease. The New World was isolated from Eurasia and Africa until the end of the 1400s, and diseases that were endemic in Eurasia had not yet arrived in the Americas (Ponting 230). The Americas likely did not experience disease such as measles and smallpox due their lack of domesticated animals. Other continents, such as Eurasia and Africa, often received infections from animal-human contact; herd animals, living in large groups, were more susceptible to contracting diseases and they, in turn, passed them to humans. Once Europeans carrying diseases unknown to the New World arrived on its soil, calamity, at least for people of the Americas, ensued (Ponting 226).

Smallpox was an especially potent killer, causing the deaths of many millions. Due to severe lack of natural immunity among people native to the Americas, European diseases spread very quickly, decimating whole civilizations. A tragic example of this is the extinction of the indigenous Taino people on the island of Hispaniola. Smallpox first broke out among them in 1518, as a result of the Spanish arrival. When Christopher Columbus first arrived there in 1492, the Taino numbered upwards of five to six million people. However, once the Spanish began searching Hispaniola for gold and other such things, the Taino were swept with the arrival of smallpox.
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