The Anthropology of Medicine: From Culture to Method

By Lola Romanucci-Ross; Daniel E. Moerman et al. | Go to book overview

2
AZTEC AND EUROPEAN MEDICINE IN THE NEW WORLD, 1521-1600

CLARA SUE KIDWELL

Spanish settlers in the New World came bringing with them their customs, their foods, and their diseases. The New World represented a strange and even exotic place. It was primarily of interest to the Spaniards because of the material wealth of gold and silver that they dug from its bowels. However, although the gold and silver of the New World mines had a tremendous impact upon the role of Spain as a world power and upon the course of European history, the most lasting contributions of the North and South America continents to the European civilizations were not the minerals that represented wealth. Instead, it was the plants, primarily in the form of foodstuffs but also in the form of herbs for medical use, that were ultimately to provide a wealth far greater than the mineral wealth of the New World continents. 1

In return for that wealth, the Spaniards gave to the native peoples of the New World many diseases (e.g., smallpox, typhus, cholera, and measles) and a life of slavery in the mines that largely decimated the Indian populations within approximately 50 years of the conquest. 2 Although there are many problems in calculating exact numbers of native populations at the time of conquest from which to calculate a rate of decline, the fact of the population decline due to disease is readily apparent.

The Spaniards, in their turn, suffered from what is often called "Montezuma's revenge," that is, gastrointestinal distress, as well as respiratory ailments induced by the living conditions in the New World. Agustin Farfan, a Spanish physician writing in Mexico in 1579, listed the principal afflictions of the Spanish residents of the New World as "flaqueza y indigestión del estómago" (weakness and indigestion of the stomach), "tauardete" [sic] (typhus), "dolor de costado" (tuberculosis), and "de la colica passion y del dolor

-19-

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