Why Blame Smallpox?
Paper (pdf)
Powerpoint (5 mb)

Contact:  Robert McCaa, rmccaa@umn.edu

Comment (on all papers delivered at the session)
Prof. Noble David Cook
Department of History, Florida International University

Contact:  Noble David Cook, cookn@fiu.edu

Why Blame Smallpox?
The Death of the Inca Huayna Capac and
the Demographic Destruction of Tawantinsuyu (Ancient Peru)

Robert McCaa, Aleta Nimlos and Teodoro Hampe- Martínez

American Historical Association Annual Meeting, January 8-11, 2004, Washington D.C.

Session 9.  Epidemics and Demographic Disaster in Colonial Latin America: A Reassessment
Friday, Jan 9, 9:30-11:30 am.  Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Virginia Suite A

Paper & images at:  www.hist.umn.edu/~rmccaa/aha2004

Abstract. Modern historians blame smallpox for the death of Huayna Capac and for the demographic collapse of Tawantinsuyu (e.g., McNeill Plagues and Peoples, Crosby Ecological Imperialism, Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel, Cook Born to Die, Tucker Scourge: the Once and Future Threat of Smallpox, Alchon A Pest in the Land). A smallpox epidemic supposedly leaped ahead of the Spanish conquistadores and erupted in the Andean region years before Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca Atahualpa at Cajamarca in 1532.

Nevertheless, few chronicles actually mention smallpox (Table 1). Some characterize the smallpox story as hearsay.  There are no eye-witness accounts.  From an examination of a wider range of evidence—the earliest Quechua-Spanish dictionaries, depictions of Huayna Capac's mummy, contemporary descriptions of pockmarked survivors and a cache of recently excavated mummies at the Puruchuco burial grounds, as well as a comprehensive survey of chronicles—we conclude that the smallpox story is exceedingly unlikely.

The story is even more implausible when epidemiological findings are taken into account, particularly the use of surveys of pockmarked individuals by the World Health Organization to certify the eradication of the disease.

Finally, a co-author of this paper (Dr. Hampe-Martínez) is engaged in a dig to recover the mummy of Huayna Capac, buried at the the Real Hospital de San Andres in Lima four centuries ago by an earthquake.

Until new, more convincing evidence becomes available, the smallpox story should be discounted. The demographic collapse of Inca Peru, as the best ancient historians explained long ago, was caused by (1) three decades of civil war (including a war of succession which erupted following the death of Huayna Capac), (2) pillage, (3) excessive labor demands, and (4) widespread destruction of habitat. When smallpox finally struck in 1558-9, the indigenous population had already collapsed by more than one-half. Historians who blame smallpox for the defeat of the Incas and the destruction of Andean populations are invited to reconsider the evidence. 


·  Robert McCaa, Professor of History, University of Minnesota, and Principal Investigator of IPUMS-International, a consortium to harmonize census microdata  

·  Aleta Nimlos, Teaching Assistant, Department of History, University of Minnesota

·  Teodoro Hampe-Martínez, Professor of History, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos

Contact:  Robert McCaa, rmccaa@umn.edu

 Links, www.hist.umn.edu/~rmccaa/aha2004 :

·  Paper (0.5 mb)

·  Powerpoint (5 mb)

Individual jpg slides from presentation (~100k each):

·  1. Title page

·  2. Outline of presentation

.  3. Part 1

·  4. Overview

·  5. Chronicles

·  6. Table 1, Chronicles 1533-57

·  7. Modern Histories (Table 2)

·  8. Inferring causes of death

   9. Part 2

·  10. New Evidence and lack thereof

·  11. Smallpox in early Quechua dictionaries

·  12. Huncuy compared with Viruelas

·  13. Pockmarked individuals

·  14. Comparison with Tenochtitlan

·  15. Tawantinsuyu: absence of references to pockmarked individuals

·  16. Insights from global eradication: pockmarks

·  17. Low communicability of smallpox

   18. Part 3

·  19. Guaman Poma, 379: Mummy of Huayna Capac enroute to Cuzco

·  20. 453: depiction of faces at execution of Tupac Amaru

·  21. Tears drawn on checks demonstrate Guaman Poma's concern with detail

·  22. 659: beard stubble resembles pockmarks

·  23. Mummified remains reveal pockmarks

·  24. Suspected location of Huayna Capac's mummy

·  25. No pockmarked Peruvian mummies found

·  26. Reflections


 Source Links:

  • Guaman Poma, El primer Nueva Corónica y buen gobierno
  • Pablo Patron, La enfermedad mortal de Huayna Capac. Crónica Médica (Lima), pp. 179-183
  • Mummy of the Inca Huayna Capac
    enroute to Cuzco.

    Source:  Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala,
    Nueva crónica y buen gobierno.
    Paris, 1936

    He’s a man of about forty years of age, of medium height, modern in appearance, and pockmarked on the face by smallpox
    —description of the Inca Titu Cusi Yupanqui (1565)


    Cranium from the Puruchuco burial grounds
    Source: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/

    Radar Map of San Andres Hospital (Lima),
    showing likely location of human remains,
    including, it is suspected, the mummy of the
    Inca Huayna Capac

    Table 3.  Quechua Terms Related to Illness in Three Early Dictionaries


    Santo Tomas (1560)

    “Ricardo” (1586)

    Gonzalez Holguín (1608)

    (Carrion’s disease)

    Moro, ticti


    Ticti; hacerse verruga - tictiyan



    Huanti, huantictam onconi

    Tener – Huantictam vnconi huanti vncoytam

    Enfermedad de mancha
    (illness of the spots)



    Muru onccoy



    Caracha llecte

    Lluttasca llekte o lluttascca ccaracha

    Mal de viruelas o sarampión



    Muru vncoy

    Mancha redondeada
    (round spots, denoting disease)


    Cundir la mancha – visuin

    Mapam mmizmirin mirarccun

    Peca de la cara
    (pockmarked face)






    Muru oncoy

    Hatun muru vncuy



    Muru oncoy

    Huchuy muru vncuy

    Chronicles Surveyed (Sources to Table 1)

    Anello Oliva, Fr. Giovanni. 1895 Historia del reino y provincias del Perú. Lima.

    Anon. [“The anonymous soldier”]. 1934. Relación del sitio del Cusco y principio de las guerras civiles del Perú..., 1534-1539. Lima

    Betanzos, Juan de. 1987. Suma y narración de los Incas, ed. M. Martín Rubio Madrid.

    Borregan, Alonso. 1948 Crónica de la conquista del Perú. Sevilla

    Cabello de Balboa, Fr. Miguel. 1951 Miscelánea Antártica. Lima, 1951.

    Cieza de León, Pedro de. 1985 Crónica del Perú: Segunda parte.  Lima.

    Cobo, Fr. Bernabé. 1892 Historia del Nuevo Mundo. Sevilla.

    Lizarraga, Reginaldo. 1905 Descripción breve de toda la tierra del Perú, Tucumán, Río de la Plata y Chile.  Madrid.

    Murúa, Martín de. 1987 Historia general del Perú. Lima.

    Ortiguera, Toribio de. 1968 Jornada del Río Marañón. Madrid.

    Pablos, Fr. Hernando. 1965 Relación que enbio a mandar su Magestad se hiziese desta ciudad de Cuenca y de toda su provincia. Madrid.

    Pachacuti Yamqui, Juan de Santa Cruz. 1873 Relación de antiguedades del Perú.

    Pizarro, Pedro. 1978 Relación del descubrimiento de los reinos del Perú. Lima.

    Poma de Ayala, Felipe Guaman. 1936 Nueva crónica y buen gobierno. Paris.

    Salinas y Córdova, Fray Buenaventura de. 1957 Memorial del nuevo mundo Pirú.

    Sancho de la Hoz, Pedro. 1917 Relación para S.M. de lo sucedido en la conquista y pacificación de estas provincias de la Nueva Castilla.  Lima.

    Sarmiento de Gamboa, Pedro. 1906 Historia de los Incas. Berlin.

    Vaca de Castro, Cristóbal. 1934 Discurso sobre la descendencia y gobierno de los Incas.  Lima.

    Vega, El Inca Garcilaso de la. 1985 Los Comentarios reales de los Incas. Lima.

    Xerez, Francisco. 1534 Verdadera relación de la conquista del Perú y Provincia del Cuzco. Sevilla.