“Sometime in the early fifteen hundreds several epidemics of disease probably swept T1 in close succession. If the mortality rates were similar to the rest of Honduras, ninety per cent of the inhabitants died of disease. The survivors, shattered and traumatized, prepared to abandon the city. Their final act was to gather up their sacred objects, arrange them at the base of the pyramid, smash them, and then depart, never to return.
“Europe’s Black Death, at its worst, carried off thirty to sixty per cent of the population. That was devastating, but the mortality rate wasn’t high enough to destroy European civilization. A ninety-per-cent mortality rate is high enough: it does not just kill people; it annihilates societies. The survivors are deprived of that vital human connection to their past; they are robbed of their stories, their music and dance, their spiritual practices and beliefs. Think what it would be like for you to watch all these people die—your children, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, your friends, your community leaders, merchants, and spiritual authorities. Imagine the wasteland left behind, the towns and cities abandoned, the fields overgrown, the houses and streets strewn with the unburied dead; envisage the wealth rendered worthless, the stench, the flies, the scavenging animals, the loneliness and silence. This inferno of contagion destroyed thousands of societies and millions of people, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, from California to New England, from the Amazon rain forest to the tundra of Hudson Bay. It was the greatest catastrophe ever to befall the human species. The death of T1 was but one tile in this vast mosaic of annihilation.
“We have few accounts giving the Native American point of view of these pandemics. One of the most moving is a rare contemporary eye‐witness description, called the “Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel,” which recalls the two worlds, before and after contact. It was written by an Indian in the Yucatec Mayan language:
There was then no sickness; they had no aching bones; they had then no high fever; they had then no smallpox; no stomach pains; no consumption . . . At that time people stood erect. But then the teules [foreigners] arrived and everything fell apart. They brought fear, and they came to wither the flowers.
Text: An Ancient City Emerges in a Remote Rain Forest, The New Yorker.
Image: Michael Wolgemut, Dance of the Skeletons, Liber Chronicum (“The World’s Chronical”), woodcut illustration, 1493.