Mexican Smallpox Victims

Date: 1557
Owner: University of New Mexico Press
Source Type: Images


This drawing from the Florentine Codex is one of the earliest images of Native Americans infected with smallpox. The Aztec authors of the codex described how smallpox caused many deaths soon after the Spaniards arrived, not only because of the disease itself but also because so few remained healthy enough to feed and tend the sick that many more died of starvation. Among those who survived the plague, many were left with disfiguring scars from the pustule,s and some were blinded after the pox spread to their eyes.

The first appearance of smallpox among American Indians was on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), possibly the result of forcing the natives to resettle closer to Spanish population centers. From there, the epidemic spread to other isles,and by the mid sixteenth century, almost 90% of the Caribbean Indian population had died. In 1520, smallpox came to the densely populated areas of Mesoamerica, where it devastated the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and many other urban areas. Between 1524 and 1527, the disease laid waste to the Indian populations of the Andes and by 1530, it was pandemic in much of Central and South America. Repeated outbreaks of smallpox throughout the 1500s, coupled with the introduction of other previously unknown pathogens, left the Indian populations of America little chance of recovery. This simple sketch is one of the most enduring and haunting images of the demise of American Indian civilization.