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Med Hypotheses. 2005;65(2):405-9.

Drought, epidemic disease, and the fall of classic period cultures in Mesoamerica (AD 750-950). Hemorrhagic fevers as a cause of massive population loss.

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Departamento de Microbiología y Parasitología, Facultad de Medicina, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Ciudad Universitaria, México City, D.F. C.P. 04510, Mexico.


The classical period in Mexico (AD 250-750) was an era of splendor. The city of Teotihuacan was one of the largest and most sophisticated human conglomerates of the pre-industrial world. The Mayan civilization in southeastern Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula reached an impressive degree of development at the same time. This time of prosperity came to an end during the Terminal Classic Period (AD 750-950) a time of massive population loss throughout Mesoamerica. A second episode of massive depopulation in the same area was experienced during the sixteenth century when, in less than one century, between 80% and 90% of the entire indigenous population was lost. The 16th century depopulation of Mexico constitutes one of the worst demographic catastrophes in human history. Although newly imported European and African diseases caused high mortality among the native population, the major 16th century population losses were caused by a series of epidemics of a hemorrhagic fever called Cocoliztli, a highly lethal disease unknown to both Aztec and European physicians during the colonial era. The cocoliztli epidemics occurred during the 16th century megadrought, when severe drought extended at times from central Mexico to the boreal forest of Canada, and from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast. The collapse of the cultures of the Classic Period seems also to have occurred during a time of severe drought. Tree ring and lake sediment records indicate that some of the most severe and prolonged droughts to impact North America-Mesoamerica in the past 1000-4000 years occurred between AD 650 and 1000, particularly during the 8th and 9th centuries, a period of time that coincides with the Terminal Classic Period. Based on the similarities of the climatic (severe drought) and demographic (massive population loss) events in Mesoamerica during the sixteenth century, we propose that drought-associated epidemics of hemorrhagic fever may have contributed to the massive population loss during the Terminal Classic Period.

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