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Old World Diseases in the Americas


  • How did Amerindians interpret the epidemics of measles and smallpox that devastated Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century?
  • What meanings were assigned to the death of the Inca Huayna Capac by Garcilaso de la Vega?
  • Did Huayna Capac die of smallpox? What sorts of sources might we use to answer this question? Is it a useful question to ask in the first place? Does it matter whether or not he died of smallpox?

Primary Sources

  • Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas,volume one, book 9, chapter XV: the death of Huayna Capac, available electronically via the library catalogue, as a American Council of Learned Societies ebook.

Required Secondary Reading

  • McCaa, Robert, Aleta Nimlos and Teodoro Hampe Martínez, ‘Why Blame Smallpox? The Death of the Inca Huayna Capac and the Deographic Destruction of Tawantisuyu (Ancient Peru)’, available electronically at
  • McCaa, Robert, ‘Spanish and Nahuatl Views on Smallpox and Demographic Catastrophe in Mexico’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 25, No. 3 (1995), pp. 397-431

Additional Secondary Readings

  • Alchon, Suzanne Austin, A Pest in the Land: New World Epidemics in a Global Perspective, 2003.
  • Cook, Noble David, Born to Die, Disease and New World Conquest, 1492–1650, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1998), chapter 2.
  • Cook, Noble David and W. George Lovell (eds), ‘Secret Judgements of God’: Old World Disease in Colonial Spanish America, chaps 1-3.
  • Cook, Noble David, “Smallpox or Bartonellosis?”: Comment on “Epidemics and Demographic Disaster in Colonial Latin America: A Reassessment”, at
  • Crosby, Alfred, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, Greenwood Press, 1972), pp. 35-63.
  • Crosby, Alfred, ‘Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America’, in William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd. Series, 33 (1976), 289-998.
  • Dobson, Mary J., ‘Mortality Gradients and Disease Exchanges: Comparison from Old England and Colonial America’, Social History of Medicine 2 (1989), pp. 259-297.
  • Guerra, Francisco, ‘The Earliest Epidemics: The Influenza of 1493’, Social Science History 12 (1988), 305-325.
  • Gruzinski, Serge, The Conquest of Mexico: The Incorporation of Indian Societies into the Western World, 16th-18th Centuries, Polity Press (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 81-5.
  • McNeill, William H., Plagues and Peoples (New York, 1976).