The Track Rock Gap Archaeological Zone is a massive Native American complex apparently was abandoned during the 1500s and then briefly occupied by somebody in the 1830s. Throughout the Southern Highlands, final town occupation dates typically span from 1500 AD – 1585 AD. There is a reason. The primary cause of the continuing debate over the history of the Americas prior to European colonization is a disease holocaust that wiped out at least 90% or more of its indigenous peoples during the immediate years when the Western Hemisphere was first being colonized.
The deaths of somewhere between 40 and 100 million people during a relatively short span of time was not caused by just one disease, but several. Many references assume that the near extinction of the population was caused by European diseases for which the people of the Americas had no immunity. This is partially true. Eurasian diseases such as small pox, measles, chicken pox and typhoid fever killed millions of Native Americans. In several regions, these diseases completely annihilated entire ethnic groups.
Little known outside the circle of a few forensic epidemiologists, though, is the fact that the deadliest plague of all in the Americas was very possibly a home grown virus. It mutated in the chaotic environment of post-Conquest Mexico. In a series of outbreaks during the 1500s, the mega-plague wiped out 95% of the indigenous population of the Mexican Highlands. It is also the most likely culprit for a massive depopulation of the Southern Highlands around 1585-1600 that left most of its landscape uninhabited.
When the first Spanish explorers arrived on the mainland of the Southeastern United States in 1513, a major plague had already depopulated many of the native provinces along the Gulf Coast. In particular, Mobile Bay and Pensacola Bay were devastated. The Spanish reported large towns that had been completely abandoned within the past decade with many skeletons scattered across their terrain. These bays are in the region, originally known to Native Americans as Am Ixchel (Place of the Maya goddess, Ixchel.) The Maya name suggests that there was frequent contact between these bays and the Yucatan Peninsula. They are the closest section of the North American mainland to the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.
A smallpox epidemic swept through Yucatan and Central America in 1500, killing millions of people. Apparently, someone in Christopher Columbus’s crew was a carrier of smallpox. The disease appeared in Cuba immediately after his second voyage. From Cuba it was probably spread by Chontal Maya merchants who regularly sailed between Yucatan and Cuba. The first plague to hit the North American mainland was probably small pox, but this is not known for certain. The most likely scenario is that either Calusa merchants based in southern Florida or Maya merchants spread the small pox microbes as they made stops along the Gulf Coast.
In late 1520, as the Hernan Cortes expedition waited to strike the capital of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan, a fatal blow, small pox swept through the Aztec Empire. It is estimated that 40% of its population died of the disease. About another 20% died of starvation, because there were so many sick and dying, that the Aztec food distribution system collapsed. Without the devastation of the smallpox epidemic, it is far less likely that the Spanish and their native allies would have been able to conquer the Aztec Empire.
By 1528, the Central American smallpox epidemic had reached the Inca Empire in South America. Francisco Pizzaro was waiting at the empire’s gates with a tiny army of 169 Spanish conquistadors. Smallpox soon killed many of the Inca leaders and soldiers. When they saw the power of the imperial government weakened, vassal peoples rebelled. They gave the assistance to Pizzaro’s puny army that was needed to topple the Incas.
In 1539 Hernando de Soto led an army of 600+ conquistadors into the Southeastern United States. He financed the expedition from wealth gained in the conquest of the Incas. Most of the advanced Native American provinces visited by de Soto’s army showed no evidence of recent plagues.
The one exception is a province on the Coastal Plain of South Carolina that contained the famous town Kofitachiki (Cofitachiqui in Spanish.) A female leader of the province told de Soto that a disease had recently killed many people. No symptoms characteristic of smallpox were mentioned. The leader also stated that the province had an inadequate amount of food reserves because of the plague. So many people had died quickly that the province’s food supply system had collapsed.
De Soto’s men were allowed to dig up the graves of the deceased in that town to gather pearls buried as grave offerings. Undoubtedly, the pearls were contaminated with the microbe that caused the plague. The Spaniards carried those pearls as far as southwesternn Alabama before losing them during a battle.
When the doomed Tristan de Luna colonizing expedition reached Pensacola Bay in 1559, much of southern Alabama had been depopulated by a terrible plague that followed in the wake of the de Soto Expedition. Anthropologists believe that the large herd of pigs that de Soto brought along with his expedition spread a plague through Alabama when they escaped. It was possible that the pathogenic organism from South Carolina mutated inside the pigs and became more virulent.
French Huguenot explorer, René Goulaine de Laudonnière, explored the gold-bearing mountains of Georgia in 1562. His memoirs do not mention any plagues or the effect of any past plagues. The Mountain Apalachee Indians that he befriended seemed to be thriving.
Spanish explorer, Juan Pardo, traveled through the Southern Highlands in 1567-68. His chronicles do not mention any plagues or population losses from past plagues. The town where he was based, Santa Elena (South Carolina) was occupied until 1587. Surviving reports of officials in Santa Elena do not mention any massive plagues along the South Atlantic Coast. There are occasional deaths of natives from Eurasian diseases, but no mass die offs.
Something horrific was happening in the Highlands of Mexico during that era, however. In 1545, almost immediately after the arrival in Mexico of a handful of de Soto Expedition survivors, a mysterious plague appeared in the Central Highlands of Mexico. After it settled in a Native community, between 85% and 100% of the population would quickly die. It was not a disease that Europeans recognized. In fact, very few, if any, Europeans even caught the disease. The disease did not infect anyone, Native or European, living in the coastal plain.
Symptoms of the plague included high fevers, headache, and bleeding from the nose, ears, and mouth, accompanied by jaundice, severe abdominal and thoracic pain as well as acute neurological manifestations. Victims could feel perfectly healthy at breakfast, but be dead by supper. At best victims might survive for 2-4 days. In the 1545 outbreak of this plague, 85% of the Native Americans died in the Central Highlands of Mexico, while 45% of the total Native population of Mexico died. In that era, the territory of Mexico included all of Central America and what is now the southwestern United States.
Epidemiologists currently believe that this killer disease was a strain of hantavirus, carried by certain wild rodents that somehow mutated into a hemorrhagic fever with symptoms similar to the Ebola Fever of Africa. To this day no one knows why this indigenous microbe suddenly became so deadly, or even how it was transmitted from village to village. No one knows either what caused the disease to seemingly disappear in the early 1800s.
Apparently, some time between 1587 and 1600, the Mexican Highland Hemorrhagic Fever, or something very similar, struck the Southern Highlands of the United States. Almost instantaneously, all of the major towns in that region were abandoned. There was such a drop in population that archaeologists rarely even find an occupied Southern Highland town site that dates from the 1600s. Some Native village sites have been discovered that date from the late 1500s that were littered with unburied skeletons. If the cause of death was that mysterious Mexican plague, the most likely carriers would have been either birds or Monarch butterflies that winter in the Mexican Highlands, then breed in the Southeast.
The dangerous Hantavirus
According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Hantavirus is a rare disease in the United States that primarily is found in the Southwestern United States. It currently has no record of cases in the Southern Highlands, yet the Hantavirus is the most likely cause of the mass die-off in the late 1500s. According to this highly respected institution, almost all the cases in the United States are the result of a bite from the Desert Cotton Mouse or exposure to its saliva. Also, according to the CDC the fatality rate for non-hospitalized persons is 60%. There is a reason for the under-reported cases, most deaths are attributed to other causes or else the survivors think that they had a series of diseases.
The indigenous strain of Hantavirus currently recognized by the CDC is not the one that wiped out millions of Native Americans in the 1500s. Most patients contracting this known strain of the disease die of encephalitis, kidney failure or heart attacks, not bleeding as in the Super-killer Plague. The Southwest Desert Hantavirus is particularly dangerous because it attacks many parts and systems of the body. Apparently, the virulent virus strain that killed so many people in the 1500s multiplied so fast in the victim’s bodies, that their immune system had no time to respond. Their bodies putrefied in hours. Below are the symptoms of the Southwestern strain currently known to the CDC:
1. The virus incubates for about two weeks during which time the carrier’s body fluids are contagious.
2. The onset of the disease is marked with “stomach flu” type symptoms. After an extended period of diarrhea, the muscles become stiff and achy. At this point, doctors often misdiagnose Hantavirus as a common digestive flu or rhinovirus.
3. As the digestive symptoms end, one feels as if his or her brain is about to explode. This is the onset of the encephalitis phase. Victims can even show symptoms similar to early stages of rabies.Some victims die of what appears to be strokes, when autopsied by doctors.
4. The brain swelling somewhat subsides when the victim is forced to urinate profusely – generally three to six liters a day. This is followed by extreme weakness and lack of coordination.The excessive loss of fluids can cause death, if metabolic minerals are not immediately replaced. The typical autopsy states that the victim died of dehydration for undiagnosed reasons.
5. After the period of excessive urination, the virus attacks the heart. The heart infections cause both sudden,irregular heartbeats and tachycardia, which is potentially deadly rapid beating of the heart. Persons already affected by other forms of heart disease will probably die of a heart attack. Very few doctors will recognize the heart attack as being caused by a virus. The virus also caused the arteries serving the lungs to collapse. This in turn may cause the victim to suffocate unless on oxygen therapy.
6. In the final phase of the disease, the virus attacks the kidneys again, causing kidney failure. This is when most Hantavirus victims die. Doctors and coroners will typically label the cause of death as “kidney failure” without pinpointing the Hantavirus.
7. If the Hantavirus victim does not die, he or she will take 2-8 weeks to recover. There may be permanent heart damage.
Use as a biological weapon
During the 1980s, a strain of indigenous Hantavirus was developed into a biological weapon at Fort Detrick, MD. Reportedly, a “mega-weapon” was created by mixing the DNA of the most virulent form of American Hantavirus with that of Blackpox, a strain of small pox that has a 100% death rate. It was designed as a weapon that could wipe out the entire population of a country. In order to prevent the disease from spreading to “friendly populations,” a hybrid Hantavirus was developed that did not require transmission by rodents. It was to be dropped by airplanes one month in advance of a planned attack. Some of the “friendly population” would die, but the majority that survived would be immune to the mega-weapon.”
The weapon was also designed to influence elections of other countries. Say if the Catfish Party was strong in the rural areas of a targeted nation, and the hated Possum Party was strong in the cities, biological warfare specialists would first immunize the Catfish Party area in rural areas then spray the mega-weapon on the target nation’s cities. The potential voters for the hated Possum Party would soon be either dead or incapacitated.
In the winter and spring of 1992, the new Clinton Justice Department held secret hearings in an office suite over a bakery in Georgetown. Here several dozen witnesses from Virginia and Maryland complained about the widespread use of biological weapons from Fort Detrick, MD against private citizens during the George H. Bush Administration. They were mostly farm families. Many witnesses had loss love ones because of the corruption in the region.
In a typical deposition, real estate speculators or investment groups composed of politically connected persons, first made unsolicited purchase offers on land tracts in the Interstate 81 Corridor. Strange, mostly undiagnosed, diseases would then strike the farmers or their livestock. Many of the human victims had Hantavirus symptoms. The farmers (or their surviving family members) were forced to sell their land for a fraction of its value. A colonel and major wearing U.S. Army fatigues and driving a gold Jeep Cherokee with Fort Detrick decals, were associated with all these extortions.
President Bill Clinton ordered that experimentation with the Hantavirus to cease. Meanwhile, the concerns of the secret hearings over a bakery rarely made the headlines. On December 12, 1992 a Federal counter-insurgency agent was found dead with a bullet in his head. His body lay on a frozen pasture on the Old Back Road in Shenandoah County, VA. A few months later a state senator in the Shenandoah Valley, thought to be involved in the extortions using biological weapons, died almost immediately from a violent stroke after eating at a local restaurant.
The apparent use of biological weapons against civilians continued in the region, however. Famous author, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D, a Shenandoah County resident, led the effort to bring the scandal to the public’s attention. While she was in Richmond, VA, presenting evidence to the FBI office there, her house was burned. She moved her clinic to another county, but was struck down in 1995 by a paralyzing stroke, after eating at a local restaurant. She died in 2004.
One of the most important reasons for studying history is to learn lessons that can be applied to the present. The Hantavirus is one story from history that would be best kept in the realm of history.