Epidemic Disease and Indigenous Survival: Research Findings for Colonial Latin America

W. George Lovell. Show Author details

Epidemic Disease Indigenous Survival Latin America Florentine Codex Aztecs
16th century drawing of Aztec smallpox victims

In terms of what Alfred W. Crosby (1972) famously coined the “Columbian Exchange,” the geographer Carl O. Sauer (1889-1975) was among the first to draw attention to the devastating impact that epidemic diseases introduced from the Old World to the New had on Native Americans (Denevan 1996). Following European contact, Indigenous populations declined in size precipitously. The magnitude of collapse continues to spark debate, as do discussions about how many may have inhabited the New World to begin with. Consensus is emerging, however, where contention prevailed before. That consensus attributes native demise, post-Columbus, primarily to the eruption and spread of Old World contagions – smallpox and measles were perhaps the most lethal – against which Amerindians were immunologically defenceless. Many factors besides epidemic outbreaks are responsible for the erosion of autochthonous lives, but disease emerged the most destructive of a fatal mix. 

While a graduate student at the University of Alberta (1973-1979), research conducted for my Masters and doctorate saw me investigate the matter further, specifically as it affected the Mixteca Alta of Mexico (Lovell 1975) and the Cuchumatán highlands of Guatemala (Lovell 1980). For the latter  region (see map below) the fate of its Maya peoples under Spanish rule was the subject of my first book (Lovell [1985] 2015), in which the occurrence of  smallpox between 1780 and 1810 was the focus of one chapter. At the invitation of Professor Davide Domenici of the Università di Bologna, I recently re-examined and re-evaluated the findings of that chapter for the online forum Storicamente, relating them (wherever possible) to the vicissitudes of Covid-19 (Lovell 2021). I summarize predicaments and outcomes in the discussion that follows.

Cuchumatan highlands Guatemala

Demography and Disease in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes (1520-1821)

The most striking feature of Cuchumatán demography is the decline in Indigenous numbers that followed conquest by Spain. From the early 1520s until the end of colonial domination in 1821, the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes was lashed by unrelenting waves of sickness. Rates of mortality varied but were consistently high. Catastrophic collapse began in the years immediately preceding Spanish invasion and continued throughout the sixteenth and well into the seventeenth century. Between 1520 and 1683, population levels plummeted by more than 90 percent, from perhaps 260,000 to a low of about 16,000 (see chart below). That downward spiral abated by the end of the seventeenth century, when signs of recovery are manifest. Several fluctuations in the course of the eighteenth century, however, indicate ongoing vulnerability, to smallpox in particular. Only at the very end of the colonial period are there signs of sustained growth across the region.

Collapse recovery Indigenous population Cuchumatan highlands Guatemala

After reaching its nadir around 1680, the Cuchumatán population increased in size, albeit slowly, for the next one hundred years. By 1779, it had risen some 75 percent above the estimate calculated for 1683, numbering slightly over 28,000. The vast majority of this population was Indigenous; mixed-race Ladinos and the criollo offspring of Spanish settlers accounted for only 5 percent of the regional total at the end of the colonial period, and constituted an even smaller percentage during earlier times. Demographic recovery between 1683 and 1779, therefore, was an overwhelmingly native phenomenon. With the onset in 1780 of a virulent outbreak of smallpox, one that can be considered but a regional manifestation of a hemispheric pandemic discussed with aplomb by Elizabeth A. Fenn (2001), the upward trend was abruptly arrested.

Over 4,000 natives of all ages perished, with almost 60 percent of recorded deaths occurring among children. One parish priest provided the regional governor with details not only of those who died but also those who became sick and were nursed back to health. This information enables some assessment to be made of the degree of infection and the rate of survival. Some idea of how disruptive the epidemic must have been of such routine chores as tending fields, caring for infants or the elderly, fetching water, or preparing food is indicated by the priest reporting that three out of every five people fell ill. Of those laid low, one in four perished.

Mortality rates, town by town, varied markedly across the region, from less than 10 percent in some communities to more than 30 per cent in others (see map below). Assuming it was the same strain of smallpox that was involved, differences in impact most likely were caused by a combination of factors, including demographic composition; population density; degree of settlement nucleation or dispersal; extent of previously acquired immunity; level of pre-contagion health and nutrition; effectiveness of quarantine procedures; proximity to routes of trade and communication; and numerous cultural and environmental characteristics related to habit and habitat. In other words, local conditions that changed in myriad ways from place to place best account for differences in mortality (see here and here for more information on the factors influencing disease spread in other contexts). Within a year the epidemic had reduced the population of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, after a century or so of gradual recovery, from 28,000 to around 24,000, a drop of almost 15 percent.

Smallpox 1780 Cuchumatanes Guatemala

Guatemala Beyond Los Altos Cuchumatanes

A postdoctoral endeavour afforded me the opportunity to extend study of the Cuchumatán experience to other parts of Guatemala, to determine whether or not the relationship between disease and depopulation similarly applied. It did. For Guatemala as a whole, contact numbers of around two million in 1520 are reckoned to have fallen to 131,250 by 1624-1628, a collapse of 93.4 percent. Native reduction during that calamitous century can be correlated with no fewer than eight pandemics and more than twenty localized epidemics that flared up between 1555 and 1618 (Lovell 1992; Lovell and Lutz 2013).  

Disease Dynamics in Hemispheric Context

Another postdoctoral initiative involved testing the disease-depopulation hypothesis across Spanish America in its entirety, an undertaking that called for collaboration with seven colleagues whose findings for the regions on which they conducted research again proved affirmative: epidemic-driven depopulation was documented by Hanns J. Prem for central Mexico in the sixteenth century; Linda A. Newson for early colonial Ecuador; Juan A. and Judith E. Villamarín for the Sabaná de Bogotá in Colombia from 1536 to 1810; Brian M. Evans for Aymaya in Upper Peru (Bolivia) between 1580 and 1623; Suzanne Austin Alchon for eighteenth-century Quito; and Fernando Casanueva for southern Chile in the late eighteenth century (Cook and Lovell [1992] 2001, 2000).  

Summing Up  

How many Native Americans may have perished in the epidemic aftermath of Columbus? The answer to that question will never be precisely ascertained, but fatalities of 50 million or more cannot be ruled out. The great French scholar Pierre Chaunu (1969) believed that an Amerindian population that constituted 20 percent of all humankind in 1490 – Borah (1976) champions  contact numbers upwards of 100 million, Denevan [1976] 1992) 53.9 million, and Koch, Brierley, Maslin, and Lewis (2018) 60.5 million – within a century had been razed to 3 percent. While the turmoil of war and post-conquest exploitation abhorrent in the extreme took an appalling toll, disease outbreaks are the most plausible explanation for the extent and severity of Indigenous depopulation across the continents, from Mexico in the north to Brazil in the south (Lovell 2022).

Further information:

  • The associated image of this post was taken from Wikimedia Commons (link).
  • This blog post is based on an article from the author published by the Storicamente (link).


  • Borah, Woodrow. 1976. “Renaissance Europe and the Population of America.” Revista de Historia 105: 47– 61.
  • Chaunu, Pierre. 1969. Conquête et Exploitation des Nouveaux Mondes (XVI Siècle ). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Cook, Noble David and W. George Lovell, eds. [1992] 2001. “Secret Judgments of God”: Old World Disease in Colonial Spanish America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. https://www.oupress.com/9780806133775/secret-judgments-of-god/
  • Cook, Noble David and W. George Lovell, eds. 2000. Juicios Secretos de Dios: Epidemias y despoblación indígena en Hispanoamérica colonial. Translated by Jorge Gómez. Quito: Abya Yala. https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/abya_yala/389/
  • Crosby, Alfred W. 1972. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport: Greenwood Press. 
  • Denevan, William M., ed. [1976] 1992. The Native Population of the Americas in 1492. Second Edition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 
  • Denevan, William M. 1996. “Carl Sauer and Native American Population Size.” The Geographical Review 86: 385– 397.
  • Fenn, Elizabeth A. 1991. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-81. New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Koch, Alexander, Chris Brierley, Mark M. Maslin, and Simon L. Lewis. 2019. “Earth System Impacts of the European Arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492.” Quaternary Science Reviews 207: 13– 36.
  • Lovell, W. George. 1975. “Culture and Landscape in the Mixteca Alta, 1500-1600.” M.A. thesis. Edmonton: Department of Geography, University of Alberta.
  • _____. 1980. “Land and Settlement in the Cuchumatán Highlands: A Study in the Historical Geography of Northwestern Guatemala.” Ph.D dissertation. Edmonton: Department of Geography, University of Alberta.
  • _____. [1985] 2015). Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala: A Historical Geography of the Cuchumatan Highlands, 1500-1821. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. https://www.mqup.ca/conquest-and-survival-in-colonial-guatemala–fourth-edition-products-9780773545274.php?page_id
  • _____. 1992. “Disease and Depopulation in Early Colonial Guatemala.” Pp. 49-83 in Noble David Cook and W. George Lovell, eds., “Secret Judgments of God”: Old World Disease in Colonial Spanish America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • _____. 2021. “Destroying Generation after Generation”: Outbreaks of Smallpox in the Cuchumatán Highlands of Guatemala, 1780-1810. Storicamente: Laboritorio di Storia 17. https://storicamente.org/lovell_smallpox_cuchumatan_highlands_of_guatemala
  • _____. 2022. “Pandemic Precedent: Indigenous Demise in the Wake of Columbus.” Pp. 27-43 in Nicholas D. Spence and Fatih Sekercioglu, eds. Indigenous Health and Well- Being in the COVID- 19 Pandemic. Routledge: London and New York.
  • Lovell, W. George and Christopher H. Lutz, with Wendy Kramer and William R. Swezey. 2013. “Strange Lands and Different Peoples: Spaniards and Indians in Colonial Guatemala. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Author details

Professor Emeritus (Queen’s University)
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