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The second Monday of October is celebrated in America as Columbus Day. The holiday commemorates the day when Columbus’ exploratory fleet first spotted land on October 12, 1492. Before Columbus, many other people had discovered America in one way or another, but after Columbus arrived, everything changed. People, animals, diseases, ideas, and art all began to rapidly flow back and forth between the hemispheres in a way which had never before happened. Today’s post, however, is not about the (always-controversial) Columbus–instead it is about the most terrible new export which the Spanish brought to the new world.
The exploration and colonization of the Americas were made easy for Europeans because big parts of the continents were empty. Early explorers reported fields that were ready for farming, and orchards filled with fruit but no people. The reason for this emptiness is sad and deeply troubling. Smallpox came to the Americas in the early 16th century on Spanish ships and rapidly expanded into a vast pandemic which ravaged the population of the new world. It outpaced the European explorers in conquering the continents: by the time colonists and explorers reached the hinterlands, great swaths of North and South America were uninhabited: the people who had lived there were dead from the highly contagious virus. Native Americans had not co-evolved with the disease for millenia (like Europeans, Africans, and Asians had) and the people of the first nations died in droves. Some estimates put Smallpox mortality in indigenous populations at an astonishing 80% to 95%. Historians estimate that the original population of the Americas was between 50 and 100 million (approximately the same as Europe). The conquest of America was not by guns or ships or religions, it was by disease. The great smallpox plague is one of the more important events in history–yet it is has not been a focus of mainstream popular history both because Europeans did not directly witness the worst ravages (except in rare cases) and because there is an existentially terrifying randomness to the mass death of so many people.
In the old world, smallpox was an ancient scourge dating back to prehistory. Using genetics, scientists have estimated that the virus originated 10,500 years ago and, indeed, 3,000 year old Egyptian mummies have been found bearing evidence of the disease. During the 17th century, smallpox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year (and left many survivors blind or hideously scarred). The people of the Americas escaped this scourge entirely by crossing a landbridge from Asia before smallpox evolved. When the Vikings discovered America, they found a resilient culture which easily shrugged off attempts at colonization. Crucially none of the Norse explorers or colonists brought any terrible illnesses with them. But what had been fortunate for the first Americans became a terrible weakness, when smallpox did finally arrive with the Spanish.
The scope of the great dying boggles the imagination. A Spanish priest traveling with Cortes into the dying Aztec empire described the scene writing “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in a house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them so that their homes become their tombs.”
Of course the Spanish did not know the remedy for the disease either. It is a historical fluke that the people of the new world died by the millions in the decades after Columbus rather than the other way around (and wouldn’t that have been a twist?). In fact syphilis was a new world disease unknown in Europe until adventurers brought it across the Atlantic. The story of the smallpox plague is a dark and terrible one, but it does have a more positive corollary. In the 16th century, as the conquistadors unwittingly spread pestilence into North and South America, a solution to the terrible plague had already been perfected on the other side of the world in China. Thanks to Chinese physicians, Turkish diplomacy, an English nobleman, convicts and… milkmaids (and lots of careful work), the horrible scourge has been all but eradicated from Earth, but I will save that brighter story for tomorrow.
Happy Tomb Sweeping Day! The 104th day after the winter solstice is celebrated in China as the Qingming festival. Throughout China, People go outside to tend to the graves of deceased loved ones and to enjoy the beauty of springtime.
As the English name implies, the holiday is also an occasion to carefully tend and restore revered grave sites because, above all, the Qingming Festival is an occasion for ancestor worship. Celebrants visit graves and tombs with offerings for the dead. Traditional offerings include roosters, flowers, paper decorations, pastries, tea, incense, chopsticks, wine and/or liquor.
In addition to being a day to show respect for the dead, Tomb Sweeping Day is a celebration of the changing seasons. People go on family outings together to enjoy blossoms or fly kites (these kites are usually shaped like animals or heroes from Chinese opera). Some people carry flowers or willow branches with them throughout the day or decorate their houses with willow branches–which are believed to ward off the wandering dead.
Happy leap day! Every time one comes around it makes me cast my mind back to where I was on past leap days—grinding through elementary school; about to graduate high school; about to graduate college; working without meaning at a parasitic bank, and so on. Four years is a convenient marker in human life and there is something memorable about the end of winter as life takes a breath before flinging itself into spring. However, if you keep leaping back over the century and millennia, eventually the leap years run out.
Prior to Julius Caesar, the Roman calendar was 355 days long. Following such a calendar for any length of time caused the months to drift out of alignment with the seasons, so the ancient Romans sporadically included a leap month named Mercedonius, or Intercalaris. Mercedonius, when it happened, was 27 days long and followed February.
February was named for the Latin word februum, which means “purification.” Romans did not like even numbers (they regarded odd numbers as lucky). February was the one month of the Roman year with an even number of days and so the Romans thought of the winter month as a time of purification and cleansing. The Romans did not care for cold dark February, so they made it shorter than all other months—28 days. Whenever Mercedonius was declared, February became shorter still—shrinking down to 23 days (at least this is probably what happened—contemporary classicists are still arguing about the precise mechanism of the ancient Roman calendar).
The pontifex maximus, the highest Priest of ancient Rome, was responsible for deciding when to insert Mercedonius into the calendar. Throughout most of the history of Rome this worked well, however it broke down badly at least two times. During the second Punic War, Roman society was so badly damaged by Hannibal’s invasion that the Romans lost track of Mercedonius and literally did not know what time it was. After the battle was won, order was restored with the reforms of the Lex Acilia in 191 BC (the nature of which are unknown—but which seem to have solved everything).
The second breakdown occurred during the years of confusion leading up to Julius Caesar’s ascendancy as dictator for life. The pontifex maximus was inevitably a powerful citizen who was deeply involved in Roman politics. He could interfere with the length of time other elected officials served by shortening or lengthening the year. As civil war enveloped Rome, the calendar became a political tool and Romans again lost track of what day it was. The confusion was only solved when Caesar took supreme office and proclaimed himself pontifex maximus. He reformed the addled calendar into the Julian calendar, which abolished Mercedonius, the haphazard leap month, forever.
For Saint Valentine’s Day here is a collection of “sailor’s valentines”. These were ostensibly a form of nautical art—like scrimshaw–created by old sea dogs in the days of canvas and manilla. On the long voyages the grizzled sailors would tenderly glue shells together in wooden (particularly octagonal cases) to give to their family and sweethearts when they returned to port. There is something appealing about this picture–but seashells come from shore. Additionally one wonders how much craft space sailors were allowed in the age of wind.
A counter narrative has arisen that sailors would buy these shell designs from a merchant in Barbados who was responsible for most of the early examples. Once the idea became popular, artisans began to make the little seashell mosaics at home. To be honest, I can picture my great-grandmother at a table filled with shells and glue much more easily than I can sea Captain Haddock putting together something like this. Whatever the case, the carefully arranged shells create delicate and lovely little artworks. Even if they were not made by sailors or given at Valentine’s Day, I am repurposing them as a valentine to all of my readers!
The Aztec goddess of death was Mictecacihuatl. According to myth she was once alive countless ages ago—a member of an ancient pre-human race of beings who lived when the world was new. But her time in the living world was short since she was sacrificed to the underworld as an infant. After her death, she grew to adulthood as a magical skeleton deity of immense power. She has lived through countless cycles as a goddess of bones and death and the dead, rising ultimately to become queen of the underworld. One of her foremost duties as the ruler of the dark realm is to guard the skeletal remains of extinct earlier races. In the past Mictecacihuatl failed in her duties and Xolotl, god of sickness and lightning, stole one of the sacred corpses of those who lived long before–which the gods of the sky then fashioned into living modern human beings. Now Mictecacihuatl must also guard the bones of dead humans, for she believes that our remains could be used by capricious sky gods to build an even more ruthless group of alien new beings.
Wow! Aztec religion really does not hold back on the bizarre, the macabre, and the unfathomable–but what does all this have to do with flowers of the underworld? Well, it turns out that Mictecacihuatl has a weakness for flowers. The brilliant yellow cempasúchil–today known as flor de muertos–was sacred to her, and Aztecs believed the smell of the blossoms could wake the souls of the dead and bring them temporarily back to earth for the great autumn festival in their honor. Huge altars laden with food were erected and festooned with the flowers. It was one of the most important traditions of the Aztecs, and even after the Spanish conquest, the tradition continued. Despite the long efforts of the Spanish church to eradicate the festival of the dead it lingers to this day (though now as a church holiday), celebrated on November 2nd as Dia De los Muertos, or “day of the dead”. The graveyards are filled with yellow cempasúchils which for a time reign supreme among flower markets throughout Mexico. Along with candy, jaunty toy skeletons, and liquor, the flor de muertosare an inextricable part of this festive time.
And what sort of flower is the cempasúchil, which has so much power over the spirits of the dead and Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld herself? The botanists call it Tagetes erecta, one of about 75 members of the marigold family– those omnipresent orange and yellow flowers known to every American schoolchild! The English name for the flower of the dead is the Mexican marigold. The plants grow wild in a belt running across central Mexico.
In the preconquest Meso-American world, the flowers were valuable and were used as a dye, an antibacterial, a foodstuff, and a skin-wash/cosmetic. Additionally, when planted with maize crops, marigolds in general (and the cempasúchil specifically) prevent nematode damage. Even today, there are industrial uses for the cempasúchils which are an ingredient in perfumes, salads, and as food colorings. In agriculture, extracts of the plant are added to chicken feed (to give the yolks their yellow color) and are used to enhance the color of shrimp and other edible crustaceans. The other fascinating plants we have examined this week—the asphodel, the devil’s hand (another plant sacred to the Aztecs!), and the deadly aconites are not grown or produced in any quantities remotely approaching the enormous annual cempasúchil harvest. Cempasúchils have benefited from their association with the dead–they are a huge success. The little yellow Mexican marigold is one of the most popular flowers in the world.
September 13th is celebrated in Mexico as Día de los Niños Héroes, “the day of the boy heroes”, a holiday dedicated to the Battle of Chapultepec which occurred near the end of the Mexican–American War of 1847. This is peculiar because the Battle of Chapultepec was not an overwhelming success for the Mexican army. During the course of the battle, several companies of American infantry troops stormed Chapultepec Castle, a fort which guarded the western entrance to Mexico City and served as the Mexican military academy. As the Americans occupied the castle, (which was defended by cadets from the military academy as well as Mexican regulars), six young Mexican military cadets refused to fall back when the Mexican commander ordered retreat. They fought to the death and, according to legend, the last cadet left alive, Juan Escutia, grabbed the flag and lept from the castle (so that the colors would not fall into enemy hands). The castle’s fall permitted the subsequent occupation of Mexico City and hastened Santa Anna’s end (his last battle came less than a month later at Huamantla).
Despite the battle’s outcome, the cadet martyrs of Chapultepec suited the Mexican national consciousness and were lionized as heroes. One of the socio-political tensions which had dogged the Mexican army throughout the conflict was the distance between senior officers, who tended to be Spanish royalists at heart, and junior officers who embraced fiery republican principles. The boy heroes were seen as a newer braver generation of Mexican officers inspired by the egalitarian and romantic ideals of the French Revolution.
The grave of the 6 cadets was the scene of an unexpected foreign policy twist when President Henry Truman stopped there on his 1947 Mexico trip in order to plant a wreath. The Mexican public interpreted the gesture as one of apology and bathed Truman in adulation. When queried by American reporters, Truman, with typical brevity simply stated that “Brave men don’t belong to any one country. I respect bravery wherever I see it.” Of course a cynical historian might imagine Truman was trying to ensure Mexico stayed in the American fold during the Cold War—and accomplished his aim with a ten dollar wreath and a well-turned phrase.
The boy heroes are still celebrated with a popular (albeit unofficial) holiday. In 1952 their remains were moved to a large and somewhat florid public monument crafted of white marble by sculptor Ernesto Tamaríz in Chapultepec Park. Looking at the soaring columns dedicated to 6 cadets whose inability to obey orders cost them their lives it is difficult to conclude that the ancient Mesoamericans admiration for human sacrifice does not still live on.
For once, Ferrebeekeeper has a very important point which I desperately want you to walk away with. If you don’t want to wade through my carefully crafted exposition (which builds gradually to this important public health message by first contemplating the nature of Earth’s dominant living things), click here and the WHO will provide this message with brevity and decisiveness.
Today I would like to write briefly about the true masters of planet earth, the bacteria and discuss some very important aspects of our relationship with them. Bacteria are everywhere and inside everything. Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than cells which are our own. They live in kangaroos, grapes, arsenic springs, molten-hot sea vents, and inside the earth’s mantle. In the depths of time, they altered the planet’s oxygen-free atmosphere into one where oxygen is plentiful and they alone among organisms (other than chemists) can fix molecular nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia. There are estimated to be more than five nonillion (5×1030) bacteria on Earth–which together outweigh the biomass of all other living things combined. They were here first (by billions of years) and they will probably be here last when the sun expands into a red giant and swallows the earth like a cocktail onion.
I should probably write more and think more about bacteria. We all should. The planet is theirs and they are more diverse than all other organisms. They quite likely exist in parts of earth we have never even reached and may even live in a shadow biosphere based on biochemical reactions we have never thought of as life-like. Who knows?
Unfortunately, like most people, when I think of bacteria, it is usually as a disease. Even though pathogens only make up the faintest fraction of the teaming bacterial world, the ones that exist are terrifying. Tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis, cholera, bubonic plague, staph, pneumonia, leprosy and tuberculosis are all bacteria, as are many other wicked diseases. For most of human history we knew these bacteria only by the results of their work and we lacked any means of dealing with them other than our immune systems and crude broad poisons like iodine, bleach, and alcohol. However all of this changed in the twentieth century with the miraculous accidental discovery of penicillin, a substance produced by a certain mold which killed or inhibited bacteria. We discovered that many fungi and actinomycetes contained similar compounds, the antibiotics, which have made human life incalculably better and saved lives beyond the telling. Of course, as with all good things, we have also abused these miracle drugs to cure minor ailments, market unnecessary household cleaners, grow fatter livestock, and treat viruses (which antibiotics don’t even cure). Overuse of antibiotics stresses the healthy bacteria which live inside our bodies perhaps contributing to a host of autoimmune and degenerative diseases. Even worse, bacteria reproduce with inhuman speed and, when not killed outright, quickly mutate into antibiotic resistant strains. These antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming widespread. Many people in hospitals are dying. Drug-resistant pneumonias, tuberculosis, and staph infections are beginning to spread.
All of this is leading up to a pointed conclusion. Today is world health day and the WHO (world Health Organization) has launched a campaign to combat antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance. They wish to combat drug resistance by (1) curbing overuse of antimicrobial compounds, (2) making sure that people receive the correct prescription and finish the entire course, (3) stopping the sale of substandard products, (4) curtailing agricultural and industrial use of these compounds, (5) convincing laboratories and drug companies to reengage and reinvest (antibacterial or antimicrobial drugs are not as lucrative as heart medicines, erection pills, and weight-loss medicine). Here is the World Health Organization statement again and here is a link to a thoughtful piece about the problem in the Economist.
Most scary things you read in the news are inflated bogeymen that people have hyped up so you will click on their websites and watch their daft TV programs. The nuclear meltdown in Japan will not hurt you unless you live in the shadow of an affected plant. You will never be bitten by a shark. Your plane is profoundly, profoundly unlikely to crash and even less likely to be blown up by terrorists. The world is safer (for you) than ever.
But now you could die of an antibiotic resistant disease you catch in the hospital during surgery, and the odds for such an end will go up unless we all become more conscientious. Drug resistant superbugs could harm or kill your loved ones if we don’t act to fix these problems. So listen to the WHO, help out the many friendly bacteria (which help us all sorts of ways), and don’t abuse antibiotics or antimicrobial compounds. Also, if you happen to be a powerful capitalist, some sort of executive, or a legislator, please try to work with the WHO to provide more rational incentives and rules for the sale, use, and creation of these compounds.
Thanks! Happy World Health Day and bonne santé to you all.