What killed millions of Aztecs? For over a century historians, anthropologists, archeologists, and other researchers have debated this question. It seems that everyone has their own idea as to how millions of indigenous people died when Europeans began arriving in the New World. But was it just the Europeans that caused the Aztec population to plummet over the course of 60 years? Was there something else afoot that contributed to the massive decline of the Aztec Empire? Is there more to this story than simply the tools of warfare used by the Spaniards? Researchers have recently uncovered what they believe to be the reason for the massive die off of Aztec people: pestilence.
The Spaniards began arriving in the New World during the 15th and 16th centuries. With support from the Spanish Crown and special permission from the Pope, conquistadors ravaged the land and its people in the name of spreading Christianity to the heathens. Being a successful conquistador could result in receiving a land grant from Spanish officials. These land grants would include large tracts of land, mining operations, as well as agricultural pursuits. Native inhabitants were forced to convert to Christianity and were taken as slaves. If they refused either, they were labeled as heretics, tortured, and in the worst instances, banished into the wilderness.
Arrival of the Spanish
The transatlantic voyage in the sixteenth century took about three months. The ships contained barrels of water, salted meat, and livestock. Sailors collected rainwater to replenish the drinking water. Rats found their way onto the ships while docked. It was not unusual for them to drown in the drinking water, contaminating it for those on board. Food was rationed and often was comprised of some sort of broth and a small portion of salted meat one time per day. If a ship got off course, the food was rationed more.
When the Spaniards arrived in the New World, they were already malnourished and sick from the transatlantic voyage. It must have been a great shock when Europeans arrived in the New World expecting loaves of bread and other wheat-based items only to find corn and never-before-seen animals. This drastic change in diet caused most Europeans to suffer from intestinal complaints as their bodies adapted to new foods. They vomited, had diarrhea, and dysentery, which is classified as runny stool combined with blood. Upon arrival and for weeks after, Europeans were not in a good state of health.
Despite their overall ill health, the Spanish conquistadors were successful in their conquest of present-day Mexico and Guatemala. Officials created New Spain, which had several regional governments. Silver mines became very important for the Crown and soon, after the Conquest, silver flooded European markets. From the 16th century through the 18th century, Spain was the most powerful empire in Europe. It controlled almost the entire North and South American continents, its people, and its resources.
The Aztecs were formidable opponents. They fiercely defended their land and homes. From the 14th century onward, they conquered rival tribal areas and forced them to come under Aztec rule. Warfare was bloody and brutal. Well-trained warriors fought each other with various projectiles and hand-to-hand combat. When a tribal area fell, it came under the control of a growing Aztec Empire. For over 100 years before the Spaniards arrived, the Aztec Empire had grown in population, military strength, and land occupying all of present-day Mexico and Guatemala.
The conquistadors arrived with gun powder and protective armor. This gave them a tremendous advantage over the Aztecs. Despite being experts at warfare, the Aztecs were mortally wounded when Europeans used modern tools of warfare. The fighting between the two great armies was brutal. Visual depictions, folk lore, and written reports proclaim the devastating and brutal violence used throughout the Conquest. Despite high mortality, warfare did not kill 22 million Aztecs. So, what did?