Epidemic Disease and Indigenous Survival in Sixteenth-Century Mexico


Epidemic Disease and Indigenous Survival in Sixteenth-Century Mexico



In the 1570s, a Nahua artist depicted the first smallpox epidemic that swept central Mexico in 1520, shortly after the arrival of Spaniards to the region. The image shows a female healer, or tiçitl, surrounded by five victims whose bodies are ravaged by pox. Most of her patients lie motionless, but the speech scroll in front of one person’s mouth conveys that s/he cries out in agony, and corresponds to the memory recorded in the text that “when they made a motion, they called out loudly.” A speech scroll in front of the tiçitl’s mouth shows that she consoles the sick people in her care, or perhaps she recites a healing incantation in an attempt to alleviate their pain and suffering. It is estimated that this first epidemic resulted in the death of half of the indigenous population of central Mexico. And it was not the last. Between 1519 and 1620, approximately ninety percent of the population died from newly introduced diseases to which the native population had no immunities; warfare, displacement, famine, and excessive labor demands further contributed to the devastating population loss.

Images and texts produced by indigenous artists and writers in the sixteenth century reveal social memories of disease and death in the first century of colonial rule. These sources used in conjunction with Spanish accounts shed light on the extent of the epidemics, the specific diseases that spread, and the ways that indigenous people and Europeans explained widespread illness. The study of disease, healing, and survival in cross-cultural contexts allows historians to consider a number of important issues, including how different societies understood the sources and spread of disease, who cared for the sick, and how. The topic illuminates other related themes, such as how cultural conceptions of the body and gender shaped healing practices, as well as connections between illness, death, and spirituality.

While many people died during these disease outbreaks, many others survived. In fact, indigenous people were still the significant majority of the population (approximately 60%) in Mexico when colonial rule ended in 1821. Thus the study of epidemics and other destructive conditions also provide an opportunity to examine survival and cultural resilience, themes that are particularly important in Native American and Indigenous studies.

In my own work, I have found that the flexible nature of the indigenous family and household, a sense of shared responsibility, and collective efforts were central to survival. As we adjust to the new realities of our own Covid-19 crisis, studying how people in other times, places, and cultures have coped with high mortality rates and social disruptions reveal ways of living through upheaval.

Presentation Date

Fall 11-13-2020




COVID-19, Nahua, Aztec, smallpox, Native American, Mexico


Arts and Humanities | History | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Latin American History | Renaissance Studies

Epidemic Disease and Indigenous Survival in Sixteenth-Century Mexico