COVID Hubris, Collapse, and Resilience: Pandemic in the New World (Part 4)

Now that we’ve been living with the COVID-19 virus in the US for most of 2020, perhaps it is time to start thinking about how this pandemic can be viewed in the long-term perspective of history and even prehistory. Start at the beginning of this essay series here or browse all of the posts here. These are reworked sections from the book, Why Did Ancient Civilizations Fail?

In the year 1500, Europe was experiencing the Renaissance and the explosion of thought that followed the invention of the printing press. The Aztecs and Incas dominated large empires in the New World. When London and Rome’s populations numbered around 50,000 each, Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, was home to about 200,000. Cusco, the Inca capital, was only the size of London or Rome, but controlled an empire linked by 40,000 km (25,000 mi.) of roads.

The Conquest of Tenochtitlan (source)

By 1533, both Tenochtitlan and Cusco were in Spanish hands. Although the Conquistadors had nominal weapon superiority, they were vastly outnumbered and only succeeded due to shrewd or even duplicitous politicking, the havoc wrought by European diseases on New World populations, and the civility of the Aztec and Inca society.

The Spanish conquistadors and European diseases represent unforeseen catastrophes, and the story of the fall of the Aztecs and Inca Empires demonstrates just how fragile well-run societies can be.

In the time of COVID-19, we are thankfully not dealing with an alien invasion. Smallpox killed perhaps as much as 95 percent of the new world population. The Bubonic Plague reduced Europe’s population by a third. We are not facing such a fate. This doesn’t mean that the disruption caused by the pandemic could not contribute to social and economic upheaval. Indeed, it wasn’t just smallpox that laid the Aztec and Inca Empires bare to the conquistadors, but the disintegration of the social system that resulted from existing problems exacerbated by new stressors.

Existing Natural and Anthropogenic Dangers

The Aztecs and Incas forged empires out of difficult environments, in many cases harnessing the peculiarities of their surroundings for their own benefit. Instead of becoming miserable swamp-dwellers, the Aztecs used the wetland ecosystem to create fertile growing platforms and thrived on fish, ducks, algae, and insect larvae. Similarly, the Incas turned their steep homeland with otherwise isolated ecological zones into a network of shared resources.

Both empires straddled earthquake zones and developed strategies to deal with their effects. Inca stonework is well known for its irregularly shaped polygonal stones that fitted tightly within a wall without the use of mortar. These unusual joints help resist disintegration during earthquakes. The walls were also pitched slightly inward, giving them a wider base and more stable architecture.

Tlaloc (source)

Drought was a constant threat to both societies and their agricultural systems. The valley had always been an arid environment, and one of the principal deities of the Aztecs was Tlaloc, the rain god, who resided in mountains and released water by way of clouds and springs. The veneration of Tlaloc, as well as the state-sponsored canal, irrigation, and chinampa infrastructure, speaks to the empire’s preoccupation with providing reliable water to its citizens to guard against drought.

Paradoxically for the Incas, drought was linked to flooding. ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) reverses the usual environmental zones: cold-water fisheries become warm-water dead zones, coastal deserts suffer from an overabundance of water, and the usually moist highlands are in severe drought. The unpredictability of ENSO (once every two to eleven years) created a challenge for the Inca Empire and its predecessors. The only warning known to the Incas was to observe the Pleiades constellation (called the quollqa, or “granary” in Quechua) in June: if it was obscured by clouds, an ENSO was coming that November (Orlove et al. 2000). The reversal of usual precipitation patterns destroyed irrigation infrastructure and disrupted plant growth. The archipelago trading network helped defray the failure of crops in one area by supplementing from a neighboring one. The state also used its vast network of storehouses to feed the citizens during ENSO lean years. The fact that the Inca population was not densely concentrated in cities helped dissipate the effects of famine as well.

All five horsemen of anthropogenic disasters (war, disease, famine, blight, and death; see the previous post) visited the Aztecs and Incas, and each state had to develop strategies to cope. For example, the Aztecs could raise a well-trained army of adult men because martial arts were taught in public schools. The Inca soldiers were also adult men, but the armies were much larger, numbering over 100,000 in some instances. The Spanish were impressed with the logistical acumen of the Inca, who moved large contingencies of soldiers and their supporters (often wives or other family members) across the empire on the road network, making good use of the evenly spaced warehouses full of food and weapons.

The New World suffered from fewer pandemic diseases than the Old World: urbanism and its accompanying decline in health was a more recent phenomenon, and the paucity of domesticated animals resulted in fewer cross-over diseases. Diseases (e.g., tuberculosis; Bos et al. 2014; Corthals et al. 2012) and parasites (e.g., tapeworm, roundworm) were prevalent in both empires however. Although illnesses among the Aztec were often attributed to supernatural causes (either witchcraft or punishment for a moral transgression), their doctors had an extensive knowledge of herbal medicine and surgical techniques. They were able to set broken bones, suture wounds, and apply herbal remedies with chemical compounds that modern studies have shown to be beneficial (Ortiz de Montellano 1975). The Inca took proactive measures to isolate towns with outbreaks and worked to prevent malaria by building away from standing water. They also identified naturally occurring quinine, which is used to fight the disease today. The Inca even practiced trephination, the drilling of a hole in the skull to relieve fatal swelling, with a survival rate up to 70 percent (Marino and Gonzales-Portillo 2000).

The Downfall of Well-Ordered Society

Although they ruled their empires with different tactics, the Aztecs and Incas collapsed shortly after the arrival of a few hundred Spanish soldiers. The conquest is an example of the trouble even well-ordered societies have dealing with unexpected circumstances. In both cases, the empires had underlying problems that festered for years. The Spanish were able to exploit these internal conflicts and used them to overthrow the states already weakened by smallpox and other new diseases.

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue . . .” starts the poem telling of the Genoese leader of a Spanish exploratory mission. We all know that he “discovered” a continent, which was already home to millions who would have been amused to learn of his discovering them. Cuba became the headquarters for Spanish exploration in the New World, and in 1519 Hernando Cortés sailed to Mexico in search of a powerful kingdom said to control the mainland.1

Estimates vary, but about half of the 1.6 million inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico may have died between 1519 and 1521.

Since his landing, Cortés had received emissaries and gifts of gold from Motecuhzoma2, the Aztec tlatoani (ruler). The ruler was trying to figure out who these odd-looking and even odder-behaving men were and what they were doing in his territory. At the same time, a new disease caused a plague in Tenochtitlan and the surrounding region. Smallpox reduced the population first by its high mortality and second by starvation as people became too weak to feed themselves. Estimates vary, but about half of the 1.6 million inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico may have died between 1519 and 1521.3

Smallpox victims in Tenochtitlan (source)

The Conquistadors continued their march to Tenochtitlan. The invaders were awed by the orderly and clean Aztec capital.4 They met Motecuhzoma, who provided them lodging in one of his palaces. In return, Cortés imprisoned the tlatoani and began to run the state through the now-puppet ruler.

Motecuhzoma in the Codex Mendoza (source)

Over the next decade, the Spanish pushed on through Yucatan, Guatemala, Belize, and points south. Smallpox preceded them, and it even killed the sitting Inka (ruler), Wayna Qhapaq, in the late 1520s.5 This set in motion a series of events that would end with the Spanish control of the Inca Empire in less than ten years.

In 1531, Francisco Pizarro led a small contingent of Spaniards down the Pacific coast of South America, intent on making contact with a wealthy kingdom south of Ecuador. The new Inka, Atahuallpa, felt he had little fear from these few hundred strangers, as he commanded an army of 20,000 fresh from victory. Pizarro and his men turned the central plaza in city where they met into an ambush: after hiding men, artillery, and horses from view, they lured Atahuallpa and his generals to a meeting; it went poorly for the Inca forces. The Spanish installed a short-lived puppet ruler and marched on the capital of Cuzco, taking it on November 15, 1533.

Atahuallpa (source)

It is hard to know exactly how much smallpox weakened the Inca Empire, but the population estimates show a reduction from 12–16 million to less than 1 million a century later (even the llamas suffered from new illnesses), but I do not want to dwell overmuch on the effects of Old World diseases on the “virgin soil” of the New World.

It is certainly true that successive waves of smallpox, measles, and influenza devastated native populations and accounted for many of the deaths, but social factors also contributed to the 90-to-95-percent reduction in populations by 1600. As we know, anthropogenic catastrophes are gregarious: famine, slavery, greed, economic exploitation, social disruption, and disease follow closely on the heels of conflict, and the Leyenda Negra, or “black legend,” refers to the cruelty, warfare, and violence meted out by the Spanish in their lust for land and riches.

Attributing the depopulation to disease alone ignores the genocidal behavior of the conquistadors (Covey et al. 2011; Livi-Bacci 2011:163-164). “Genocide” is not too strong a word: by 1550, almost no natives could be found on Cuba or Hispaniola. The Spanish debated whether or not New World people had souls until Pope Paul III said they did in 1537, after which a new rationale was invented to justify their continued slavery and massacre. The accounts of the conquistadors and later colonists are shocking in how casually they describe atrocities and ill-treatment of native people.

Hubris and Disease

Hubris again played a role in the collapse of these two young empires. It was hubris for the tlatoani and the inka to assume that this small band of stinky, pale, bearded men on top of giant, antlerless deer were no threat to their own states. I can understand the point of view of these rulers, even while acknowledging the flaw in their logic: they were semi-divine representatives of their people, their bodies were inviolate, their logic perfect, and their judgment absolute. It is unfair to assume that they could have thrown off the fetters of their own cultural logic within the short span of time that they had. I worry that we suffer from this same hubris. We should not blame the victims here, though: the Aztecs and Incas were up against Europeans without scruples who were bent on ruling the “New” World regardless of whom they had to kill or enslave. At the same time, a novel disease was laying their citizenry flat.

My wife once mused to me that it would be exciting to be alive when we are contacted by aliens. I tactlessly quashed her thought experiment, however, by drawing a parallel to the Spanish invasion of the New World. Although we think of their cultures as vastly different, those differences pale in comparison to what we would experience if contacted by extraterrestrials. At least the Spanish, Aztecs, and Incas were the same species. Even if the aliens came in peace (forgive the cliché), they would likely carry novel germs for which our bodies have no natural defenses. After 95 percent of our population died in the first 100 years (if history is any guide), the aliens will colonize our planet under the excuse that “we were not using its resources to their full potential anyway.” In 1000 years, they will write about us in romantic terms, extolling our virtuous ideal of living in balance with our planet and marveling at our provincialism and superstitions. The few human survivors will wonder why our leaders could not put aside their petty differences and band together in common defense of our planet. It was only a few hundred aliens, after all.


It does not appear that COVID-19 will kill enough people to weaken any nation state to the point of demographic collapse, but the economic disruption and individual stress could open our society up to precipitous change, for better or worse. It is likely that we will have some permanent changes from the virus of COVID-19 itself, but the more long-lasting effects will be the societal changes. For example, working from home may begin to save businesses money and it may become more commonplace. Perhaps this will cause countries to reevaluate their healthcare delivery systems, especially when it is clear that it isn’t just about individual health but the well-being of the whole, interconnected community. But these small changes may pale in comparison to the economic collapse that appears to be in the offing. As I said in an earlier blog post, we were due for a recession by all measures and estimations before the pandemic arrived. And now we are likely to be in just the beginning of a major economic crisis. Just like the downfall of Aztec and Inca Empires, it wasn’t the disease alone that caused problems, but how society responded to related catastrophes.

1The data here are from the sources mentioned at the outset of the chapter, as well as Hassig’s (2006) Mexico and the Spanish Conquest.

2Scholars use a variety of spellings when talking about the last Aztec ruler: “Motecuhzoma,” “Motecuzoma,” “Moctezuma,” “Montezuma,” and others. These are all attempts to render Nahuatl sounds into an alphabet not built to handle them. Linguists use a more complex notation system and would render his name as /mote:kʷso:maʔ/. The colon lengthens the “e” and “o” vowels, the small “w” modifies the “k” consonant, and the question mark without a dot is a “glottal stop,” telling the reader to close his or her glottis at the end of the word. A book cannot give you an auditory experience, so we will just stick to “Motecuhzoma” with the understanding that writing systems have trouble incorporating novel foreign sounds (thanks to Marc Zender [personal communication 2014] for clarifying the reason behind the myriad spellings).

3Population levels from this tumultuous time are difficult to estimate. At this time, central Mexico may have had between 17.2 and 25.2 million, but by 1600 CE, the population was only about 1 million (Cook and Borah 1971:9-10; Hassig 2006: 187; Denevan 1992:370).

4I recommend The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521 (1956 [1632]), an account written by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a member of Cortés’s company. Keep in mind, though, that it was written decades later, by a man who had everything to gain from exaggerating his role in the conquest.

5The spread and effects of disease are well chronicled in Cook’s two books, Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru, 1520-1620 (1981) and Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650 (1998). Another useful source is Livi Bacci’s (2008) Conquest: The Destruction of the American Indios.

Works Cited

Bos, Kirsten I., Kelly M. Harkins, Alexander Herbig, Mireia Coscolla, Nico Weber,Iñaki Comas, Stephen A. Forrest, Josephine M. Bryant, Simon R. Harris, Verena J. Schuenemann, Tessa J. Campbell, Kerttu Majander, Alicia K. Wilbur, Ricardo A. Guichon, Dawnie L. Wolfe Steadman, Della Collins Cook, Stefan Niemann, Marcel A. Behr, Martin Zumarraga, Ricardo Bastida, Daniel Huson, Kay Nieselt, Douglas Young, Julian Parkhill, Jane E. Buikstra, Sebastien Gagneux, Anne C. Stone, and Johannes Krause. 2014. Pre-Columbian mycobacterial genomes reveal seals as a source of New World human tuberculosis. Nature 514:494–97.

Cook, Noble David. 1981. Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru, 1520–1620. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
———. 1998 Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492–1650. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Cook, Sherburne F. and Woodrow Borah. 1971. Essays in Population History: Mexico and the Caribbean. Vol. 1. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Corthals, Angelique, Antonius Koller, Dwight W. Martin, Robert Rieger, Emily I. Chen, Mario Bernaski, Gabriella Recagno, and Liliana M. Davalos. 2012. Detecting the Immune System Response of a 500 Year-Old Inca Mummy. PloS ONE 7(7):e41244.

Covey, R. Alan, Geoff Childs, and Rebecca Kippen. 2011. Dynamics of Indigenous Demographic Fluctuations: Lessons from Sixteenth-Century Cusco, Peru. Current Anthropology 52(3):335–60.

Denevan, William M. 1992. The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82(3):369–85.

Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. 1956 [1632]. The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico: 1517–1521. Translated by A. P. Maudslay. Kingsport Press, Kingsport, Tennessee.

Hassig, Ross. 2006. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. 2nd edition. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Livi Bacci, Massimo. 2008. Conquest: The Destruction of the American Indios. Translated by Carl Ipsen. Polity Press, Cambridge.
———. 2011 The Demise of the American Indios. Population and Development Review 31(1):161–65.

Marino, Raul, Jr. and Marco Gonzales-Portillo. 2000. Preconquest Peruvian Neurosurgeons: A Study of Inca and Pre-Columbian Trephination and the Art of Medicine in Ancient Peru. Neurosurgery 47(4):940–50.

Orlove, Benjamine S., John C. H. Chlang, and Mark A. Cane. 2000. Forecasting Andean rainfall and crop yield from the influence of El Niño on Pleiades visibility. Nature 403:68–71.

Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. 1975. Empirical Aztec Medicine. Science 88(4185):215–20.

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