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25 January 2017

In World Current Archaeology 81 (February 2017) (https://www.world-archaeology.com ), the News section, there is half a page on smallpox – when did the virus reach Europe. It seems that it may not have made the leap from animal to human that long ago. According to previous studies on ancient disease it has been assumed smallpox has been around for a long time – and entered Europe in the Roman period as a result of contact with more exotic climes. It is even thought Ramses V of dynasty 20 died from smallpox towards the end of the Late Bronze age in Egypt. Researchers from the US, Finland and Australia extracted samples from the DNA of a partly mummified child that died in 17th century Lithuania and found that smallpox was virulent at this time, probably throughout Europe. There is a certain amount of projection here as Lithuania was not in the Roman world and may not have experienced an earlier introduction of the virus. The virulence of the virus is what seems to suggest it was a recent introduction and as such it may show there was not surviving ancestor of the virus prior to AD1580. We may wonder why this date is chosen and then it emerges that smallpox could not be the epidemic disease that killed off large numbers of native Americans around the time of the Spanish conquest. Smallpox must have reached the Americas by another route. They suggest it was carried by the slave trade – along with virulent forms of malaria. We may note malaria was also a problem during the Roman era and affected lords as much as labourers. It may be that one of the big Roman epidemics coincided with the introduction of malaria as a result of trade and discourse with people beyond the periphery of the empire – but where does that leave smallpox? What disease was responsible for the mass die-off of native Americans (especially in South and Central America)? Did it occur after the arrival of the Spanish – or did it actually happen prior to the conquistadors? Did an epidemic aide and abet the conquest by reducing the population even before the Spanish jumped ship?

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