The Role of Disease in European Exploration and Colonization

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The Role of Disease in European Exploration and Colonization


Human mobility, in terms of European transcontinental exploration and colonization, began to truly flourish after the 1400s. This travel, inspired by financial motives and justified by religious goals, resulted in the European dominance and decimation of countless cultures in both the Americas and Eurasia. While at first glance it seems as though this dominance was achieved through mainly military means - European militias, like Spanish conquistadors, rolling over native tribes with their technologically advanced weapons - the reality is significantly more complex. The Europeans, most likely unknowingly, employed another, equally deadly weapon during their exploits.
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However, disease on the epidemic scale did not appear till certain conditions existed, conditions created namely by the Agricultural Revolution. As communities became more sedentary and developed a more stable means of food production through the domestication of animals and irrigation processes, populations were able to increase at exponential rates, one of the fundamental prerequisites for an epidemic outbreak. An increased population translated into closer living conditions, less sanitary means of waste disposal due to sheer volume, and typically, poorer nutrition, making people more susceptible to a breakdown of the immune system. A higher population, in comparison to that of their hunting and gathering predecessors, meant a greater chance for contracting an illness. Equally important, the Agricultural Revolution demanded the domestication of animals. In living in close proximity to cattle, hogs, and other useful livestock, a phenomenon known as species cross-over took place. This species cross-over refers to the mutation of diseases typically found in livestock to a new form that seeks out a human host. The most classic and devastating example is small pox, a highly fatal disease that causes sores to form on the body and known in cattle as cowpox (Ponting, 225-226). This, coupled with irrigation, providing a host for water-born diseases like malaria and schistosomiasis, sheds a bit of light on the magnitude of the influence of the Agricultural…