Did Rats, Not Spanish, Doom Indians?

Mark Stevenson, AP, Jan. 8, 2007

Mexicans have long been taught to blame diseases brought by the Spaniards for wiping out most of their Indian ancestors. But recent research suggests things may not be that simple.

While the initial big die-offs are still blamed on the Conquistadors who started arriving in 1519, even more virulent epidemics in 1545 and 1576 may have been caused by a native blood-hemorrhaging fever spread by rats, Mexican researchers say.


Search for gold, silver

One camp holds that the epidemics could have been spread by rats migrating during a drought cycle; others say newly arrived Spanish miners may have disturbed the habitat of virus-carrying rodents while searching for gold and silver.

Dr. Francisco Hernandez, who witnessed the epidemic of 1576, described a fever that caused heavy bleeding. It raced through the Indian population, killing four out of five people infected.


“This wasn’t smallpox,” Dr. Rodolfo Acuna-Soto of Mexico’s National Autonomous says. “The pathology just does not fit.”

But another expert, Elsa Malvido, insists the rodents mentioned in texts from the era probably came from Europe or Asia carrying the bubonic plague, which sometimes caused its victims to vomit blood.


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