Harbingers and Responses to Pandemics

Alberto Diaz-Cayeros
15 min readMar 15, 2022


Motivated by the twin exhibits, both called Mixpantli, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), in a recent interview I expressed in words the sorrow that has accompanied me throughout this pandemic: “It pains me to understand that so much of past human suffering —the losses that occurred historically after the conquest of Mexico— is deeply connected with loss and pain people are experiencing today, with their families and loved ones, victims of the COVID19 pandemic.” In this entry I want to expand on some related thoughts to what I shared in the LACMA podcast inspired to a large extent on the findings of a recent paper I just published with Saumitra Jha and Juan Espinosa-Balbuena.

LACMA podcast in conversation with Diana Magaloni

The impact of the virus SARS-CoV-2 on humanity has been devastating. Like the epidemics suffered by indigenous peoples in the 16th century, much of the loss we have suffered over the past two years were, however, actually preventable. A sobering perspective comes from realizing that many of the deaths we experience today, just like millions of the deaths in the 16th century, needed not happen.

Our academic paper regarding this question, coauthored with Saumitra Jha and Juan Espinosa Balbuena, takes the challenge of reconstructing the mortality of indigenous communities in Central Mexico after contact with the Europeans. We study the fate of more than one thousand city-states, altepeme, existing in the 16th century. It took us most the two years of the pandemic to construct the dataset and to analyze it. We conclude that the pathogenetic view of demographic decline in the Americas, often associated with the so called “virgin soil” hypothesis, is quite misleading. By making the effects of a pandemic primarily something related novel pathogens, instead of conceiving it in terms of how societies respond to disease, we negate the critical role of human agency. One of the important innovations in the paper is to focus on the survival of communities, not just on the population decline, differentiating each political unit. We characterize those communities through the alternatives they had available, in terms of their productive activities, which in turn determined their resilience.

Settlements that completely disappeared vs. those that survived during the colonial period in Central Mexico according to Diaz-Cayeros, Espinosa Balbuena and Jha (2022)

I believe that the effects of the COVID19 pandemic in various societies today are more about how human solidarity works, whether people are empowered to help themselves and seek the help of others, and the generosity others can have with strangers who suffer. The same, I believe, was true of Central Mexico in the 16th Century. Indigenous peoples died not simply because colonial settlers brought new diseases, such as smallpox or measles. The greatest mortality, I would argue, was more a consequence of the disruption of indigenous political autonomy, which prevented communities from responding not just to the new diseases brought by the European invaders, but also to the diseases that already existed in the Americas, such as the Huey Cocoliztli.

Colonialism meant that indigenous communities were not allowed to adapt to the epidemic conditions and the climatic shocks accompanying them, such as drought, in the ways they had historically learned to do before the arrival of the Europeans. During the 16 century millions probably died not from disease, but from one of its most evident sequelae, famine. But famine has historically been mostly human made. As the most insightful economic historian of famine, Cormac Ó Gráda notes:

Although many observers in the past deemed [famines] “inevitable” or “natural”, throughout history the poor and the landless have protested and resisted the approach of famines, which they considered to be caused by humans. The conviction that a more caring elite had the power and a less rapacious trading class had the resources to mitigate — if not to eradicate — disaster was usually present.

Such perspective differs substantially from the way most scholars usually think about demography during the colonial period in the Americas, and the way in which we assess today the response of governments to mortality “caused” by the current pandemic. Historically, epidemics were recurrent events in Mesoamerica, often also involving famines, probably caused by climatic conditions, leading to both poor harvests and the spread of disease. Rodolfo Acuña Soto and his collaborators have shown how the disruptions created by shocks to agricultural activity were clearly depicted in indigenous Annales. The Nahuas of Central Mexico knew of this as an empirical regularity of catastrophic events, which they even named the curse of 1-Rabbit, a year when famine and pestilence usually occurred, every 52 years. The Codex Telleriano Remensis records in detail these climatic shocks experienced before the arrival of the Europeans, in 1503, with great snowfalls in the Mixteca, a famine in the region of Central Mexico in 1505, and in 1506, the year of 1-rabbit, a plague of rats that destroyed crops. Moctezuma sought to appease the gods, to no avail: so by 1507 there was a solar eclipse, an earthquake, the drowning of 1,800 warriors, all indicating bad omens. And finally, by 1509 a most ominous harbinger for the arrival of the European invaders: a great light appeared during the night, lasting 40 days, namely the Mixpantli or banner of cloud.

Pre-hispanic societies and polities traditionally possessed governance mechanisms for human adaptation to natural catastrophes. It is true that new pathogens were indeed introduced by the Europeans. But most crucially, the colonial regime also destroyed autonomous forms of indigenous governance. If we want to understand how many deaths in the 16th century were probably preventable, we must listen to the perspectives not coming from the Europeans who recount that there was nothing to be done, but from the indigenous chroniclers that may tell us about human failures to act.

The General History of the Things of New Spain, also known as the Florentine Codex, safeguarded at the Medicea Laurenziana Library in Florence, is one of the most beautiful documents produced in the aftermath of the conquest in the early colonial era in Mexico. Indigenous scholars from the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, next to Mexico City, wrote — in pictographic images and in Nahuatl, which they also translated into Spanish — , an account of the indigenous world before and during the conquest. They provided an Encyclopedia of everything that had transpired in this area of Central Mexico until and including the invasion of the Europeans in 1519, and the eventual military defeat of 1521, with the fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

The authorship of the manuscript is usually attributed to Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. But the Franciscan friar should really be conceived as an intellectual entrepreneur, something more like a general editor, or a facilitator, of what was an indigenous collective intellectual enterprise. The priest planned the work for many decades, and he wrote prologues to the various books, but it was the indigenous scholars who created the monumental project. We know their (hispanized) names: Antonio Valeriano, Alonso Vegerano, Matin Jacobita, and Pedro de San Buenaventura, in addition to the scribes Diego de Grado, Bonifacio Maximiliano, and Mateo Severino. These scholars were not simple informants or translators, but the astute indigenous intellectuals who wrote and painted the several “texts”, contained within 12 books. The manuscript includes everything from botany to geography, cosmogony, theology, history, politics, rhetoric, and, of course, the famous book XII, that tells the story of the conquest from an indigenous perspective.

We have only started to understand that the pictorial narratives in the Florentine Codex are perhaps more important than the Nahuatl and Spanish language texts. Those “pinturas” are not simply illustrations added for the pleasure of the reader. From the indigenous perspective, they are, together with their orally transmitted memories, the primary source that could be transcribed to written Nahuatl or Spanish. The difficulty with reading the Codex in this way lies in that we are missing a substantial amount of the scholarly knowledge of these indigenous intellectuals. Therefore we not so competent at reading their images (a handicap we share with the majority of the Spanish friars and colonial bureaucrats of the time).

Florentine Codex Book VII, folio 16r. Storing of food for the year of the famine, 1-rabbit.

The Florentine codex contains two images depicting how Mesoamerican societies responded to pandemics, described as events that were usually followed by famine. Readers looking at social processes may have trouble locating this image because it is contained on a book on astronomy, The Sun, Moon, and Stars and the Binding of the Years. The image or pintura in folio 16 of Book VII shows the preparation of a granary in a large cuexcomate, called a troje by the Spaniards, probably similar in size to the ones depicted in tax rolls of the Matricula de Tributos or the Códice Mendocino. The accompanying text tells clearly that what is going on in this image is not a form of revenue extraction or exploitation by tribute administrators. Rulers knew that in the year 1-Tochtli there was usually a high likelihood of drought, famine and pestilence, due to climatic cycles that the indigenous peoples understood well. Therefore, a “first provision was made; our food was hidden away, stored, saved up, and placed in bins.” (Anderson and Dibble translation of the Nahuatl text). Furthermore, the text continues explaining:

Nothing was thrown away; all then was saved — wild seeds not commonly eaten; musty maize; corn silk; corn tassels; pulp scraped from maguey tappings, tuna cactus flowers; cooked maguey leaves; heated maguey sap. Everything was taken into account: [with] Amaranth even the weeds were threshed; [as for] the beans, likewise were stored and put away unripened ones and the dried, withered ends of the green beans. And when they had used all, they satisfied and quickened themselves [with] bird seed, bitter amaranth or bright red amaranth, and yacacolli maize.

Storing of grain is quite different from extracting tribute to be consumed. The Spaniards chose to read into the tributary structures of the Aztec empire that the lords were extracting grain for for their own consumption, rather than storing in a granary as a risk mitigation strategy. This comes though when reading the description of the so called Petlacalco, a building for the storage of grain, mentioned in Book 8, On the Kings and Lords, of the Florentine Codex. In chapter 13 we are told that the granary was distinct from the houses of the stewards, an altogether different building from where tributes were kept. The Calpixcalli or Texancalli (house of the stewards) was where the calpixque kept the tributes and foodstuffs for the ruler, available for whenever he required them. In the Petlacalco, instead, “more than two thousand measures of grains of dried maiz — a store of twenty years for the city” were kept. In addition, there were wooden cuexcomatl of “dried beans, chia, amaranth seeds, wrinkled chia, salt jars, coarse salt, baskets of chilis, baskets of squash seeds, and large squash seeds.” We are also told that the Petlacalco also served as a jail, a cuauhcalli or wooden house, for war captives to be sacrificed or prisoners who had committed the most serious crimes, and were condemned to death. Sahagún in his Spanish translation of this text clearly states that the Petlacalco was an alhóndiga, an Arab word that passed into Spanish to mean the public granaries where grains were stored, sold and distributed, particularly at times of shortage, under the charge of public officials.

The Codex Mendoza and Matricula de Tributos have been largely misinterpreted in this particular regard— a rather convenient misinterpretation from the point of view of the Spanish, assuming that grains in tribute payments to the Triple Alliance were simply consumed. Robert Barlow in his classic study of the Moctezuma tribute rolls explains, that he had chosen to interpret Petlacal(co), as the first tributary province in the valley of Mexico, even though the Codex was clear in establishing that Petlacatl was a governor, a person, not a town, entrusted with the granary (the Mendoza Codex annotations say that each town to the South of Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico had its own tax collector, a calpixque administrator). Munehiro Kobayashi, in his studies of the tributary structure of the Colhua Mexica, published in Japanese in the 1980s (a text that was translated into Spanish in 1993, but is rarely given the relevance it should have on the interpretation of the Mendoza Codex) suggests that the Petlacalco was a hall, the granary of the Empire, which received between 112 and 130 cuexcomates every year. This calculation, he argues, would then make sense of the accumulated grain stock of two thousand measures, being equivalent to 20 years of grain stores, mentioned in the Florentine Codex. This is a far more coherent account than other scholarly efforts to make sense of the amount and periodicity of food tributes. Perhaps the reason Kobayashi could make such interpretation, as compared to other scholars, regarding the purpose and amount of grain collected by Moctezuma, is that he gave primacy to the pictograms, not the Spanish annotations or later tribute counts of the colonial era. He analyzed the sources drawing parallelisms between the tribute of the Aztecs and the grain storage practiced by the Edo Shogunate in Japan. Kovayashi understood that empires, even though they may be ruled by ruthless leaders, when they are not colonies they usually take care of the wellbeing of their subjects during times of crisis. With the arrival of the Spanish colonial administrators and encomenderos after the conquest of Mexico such mechanisms of risk management disappeared.

Studies of famines have shown that these crises are usually territorially bound in a geographic space: food is sometimes available elsewhere, but the challenge is one of distribution and mobility. How to move food to the people who need it quickly enough. The codex Telleriano Remensis tells us, for example, that in 1505 people would go for food in the Huasteca province. People could also move, they can migrate. The indigenous sources tell us that indigenous peoples in the Nahua regions would move to the coastal areas in the fertile Popoluca and Tochtepec lands, towards the East. The Florentine Codex tells us that even the Lords, in a particularly bad year, sold themselves into slavery, or would sell their children, to prevent famine. Even with large climatic shocks there were probably some zones with no epidemic disease or famine. Even though the prospect of having to move away or having to sell yourself into slavery might be grim, many can survive the impacts of a natural shock if they have the freedom to adapt.

Florentine Codex Book VII, folio 16v. Provisional slavery as a response to famine, in which even lords sell themselves and their children to escape death.

Spanish colonizers limited the available life chances of indigenous communities by not allowing freedom of movement. Encomenderos sought to control human mobility because a population fixed in the territory was a source of rents and extraction for that encomendero. The Crown and the conquistadores repeatedly clashed over the use of personal services and capitation taxes during the first decades of the 16th century. The Florentine Codex also explains, in its Book VIII, in a description of the various parts of the palace, and giving examples of specific judicial processes, that during the time of Moctezuma there was a famine where “many noblemen sold their young sons and maidens”. We are told, however, that in the high court, of Tlacxitlan, where slaves could be delivered from bondage, Moctezuma paid twice the price of the noblemen in the form of large capes and mantles and dried maize grains (chapter 14) in order to recover their freedom.

I want to end with some thoughts regarding Tezcatlipoca, inextricably linked to obsidian mirrors, which figure prominently in the Mixpantli exhibit at LACMA, and was regarded by the ancient Nahuas as the deity that brought about epidemics. I was finally able to find a beautiful reproduction of an obsidian mirror, in a visit to Teotihuacán I made last December. The mirror I keep is on the side of my computer as I write this lines, and is quite similar in dimensions to the one kept at LACMA. I imagine myself being accompanied by this Aztec God of the far and the wide, Tezcatlipoca, through his smoking mirror, every time I see my image reflected in the darkness.

Obsidian mirror from the LACMA collection. Mexico, Valley of Mexico, Aztec, 1325–1521. Stone Obsidian. Diameter: 4 1/4 in. (10.2 cm). Gift of Constance McCormick Fearing (M.85.233.11).

Obsidian mirrors were priceless. The Tepetlaoztoc Codex (also known as the Kingsborough) kept at the British Museum shows just how valuable obsidian mirrors could be, even for Spaniards. A ruthless encomendero, Gonzalo de Salazar, took ten obsidian mirrors, shown in the figure below, in addition to extracting the “regular” tribute (the servicio cotidiano, in the form of wood, fodder, fish, grains and other foodstuffs, plus loincloths, skirts, shirts and cloaks). He also extracted double the gold tribute, with 40 round pieces worth 30 pesos each, seventeen gold jewels, a golden eagle, a box of emeralds, twelve feather headdresses, and nine rich feather blankets (equivalent to 40 regular blankets each). He demanded this extraordinary wealth for his journey back to Spain, when he was summoned by the King, after conspiring against Cortes.

The extraordinary extraction of tribute the encomendero Gonzalo de Salazar from the people of Tepetlaoztoc when he was summoned back to Spain in 1529. The tribute includes twice the regular amount of gold, ten obsidian mirrors, fine cloths, jewels, cacao and feather headdresses, in addition to the usual yearly tribute in blankets and foodstuffs. Codex Tepetlaoztoc, also known as the Codex Kingsborough, British Museum, 72 folios, European paper, 29.8 X 21.5 cm. Am2006,Drg.13964

Although it is perhaps a long quote, I want to translate the written record from the indigenous peoples of Tepetlaoztoc, who explain the last actions of the ruthless encomendero before his trip to the Spanish Court:

And when he departed to the kingdoms of Spain, [Gonzalo de Salazar] requested for his journey three hundred turkeys and four hundred chicken, sixteen thousand grains of ground cacao to drink, four hundred cloth sandals (alpargatas), two hundred leather sandals (cutarras), four hundred painted jars (jicaras), in addition to what they were forced to give [normally]. A large number of indian porters loaded from the town of Tepetlaoztoc to the port of Veracruz, which is distant more than 70 leagues. There, two hundred and twenty commoner indians (macehuales) and eight lord (principales) died.

The mortuary wrapping denotes the commoners who died, including their numbers, as well as the lords on the left, in seated poses. Their faces are shaded in grey to indicate their deaths.

Two of the rich headdresses are shown to the right above; while the extraordinary tributes for the voyage are listed with images and exact counts. It is important to note that these tributes only correspond to the additional rents extracted for the carrying of the plunder to the port of Veracruz, while the previous pages in the images above show the regular tribute. It might not clear why a trip would require hundreds of sandals, unless one considers that the mode of transportation involved human carriers, tameme. The sandals were necessary for the hundreds of porters that would have been used. Dead porters are shown in the center with their mortuary shroud and their number (21 dots multiplied by pantli, the flag denoting 20, 20x21=220) with a corresponding shaded grey face. The eight nobles are also shaded grey on the left. It might be just as a guess, but it is conceivable that there were as many porters as alpargatas (400), which would mean that more than half of the porters died, only from transporting the tribute to the port.

Mixpantli, as mentioned earlier, was the nahuatl word for a cloud banner, an omen that appeared in the sky, mentioned in various sources, announcing the arrival of the Spanish invaders, as early as the year 4-Calli, 1509. The impact of cocoliztli disease was decimating in city states like Tepetlaoztoc both in 1545 and then in 1576, just as the populations were probably recovering. But the excess mortality, when we read the original indigenous sources, was not due to more deaths occurring “naturally”, but a direct consequence of failures in human governance brought about by colonial rule. That was the true omen. Indigenous peoples knew how to survive the curse of 1-Rabbit. They were less able to survive the Europeans. Their survival, we show in our research paper, depended on economic opportunities opened up by global trade, that could temper the temptation of the use of force and violence. Read the paper if you want to know more, but the places producing cochineal, highly prized by world markets and hard to expropriate by the colonists, fared much better in demographic terms than those that produced gold, cacao or beautiful feathers.

If we do not make a retrospective exercise about pandemics and their effects on human populations in the past, we are at the risk of removing responsibility, both in terms of legacies of historical trauma that should be redressed from the perspective of the surviving populations, and the profound failure in saving lives by public officials today. In my view our current governments, just like the colonial rulers and the conquistadores, are truly responsible for thousands of the deaths, actually, they are directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. We must not let go of this responsibility, we must make our public officials accountable. And in this same spirit, we, the descendants of settlers, should engage in a historical reckoning, recognizing the debt and reparations we owe to the surviving indigenous peoples, the original inhabitants of these lands.



Alberto Diaz-Cayeros

Mexicano orgulloso, migrante renuente. Economista ITAM y Politólogo Duke. Senior Fellow en CDDRL y Director Centro Estudios Latinoamericanos Stanford University