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Colonial Epidemics and Mesoamerican Medicine in Sixteenth-Century Mexico

This exhibition explores epidemics and medicine through documents penned by Indigenous scholars and artists during the sixteenth century, at the height of societal collapse, and reflects on the colonial origins of health inequality in the Americas.

Five hundred years ago, European germs reached the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, triggering an epidemic outbreak that devastated the magnificent city and cleared the way for the Spanish invasion. In the century that followed, the unsanitary and exploitative living conditions imposed by colonial regimes allowed illness to spread rapidly, diminishing the Native American population by nearly 90 percent. Using books and facsimiles from the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection, this exhibition explores colonial epidemics and Mesoamerican medicine through documents penned by Indigenous scholars and artists during the sixteenth century, at the height of societal collapse. The exhibition focuses on the Nahua people, Indigenous groups inhabiting Mesoamerica who shared Nahuatl as a lingua franca, and it reflects on the colonial origins of health inequality in the Americas, so clearly revealed today by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This exhibition was prepared by Tyler Fellow Felipe Ledesma-Núñez (2019–2021), with assistance from Postgraduate Writing and Reporting Fellow May Wang. The text was copyedited by Lain Wilson and proofread by Magda Nakassis. All translations from Spanish are by Ledesma-Núñez, unless stated otherwise.

If you would like to learn more about the topics discussed in this exhibition, please consult an interview with Ledesma-Núñez about the talk that germinated this exhibition; Noble David Cook’s Born to Die, a thorough review of early colonial epidemics in the Americas; Matthew Restall’s When Montezuma Met Cortés, a myth-busting study of the Spanish-Aztec encounter; Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano’s Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition, a comprehensive guide to Nahua life before the Spanish invasion; Barbara E. Mundy’s The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City, a richly illustrated investigation of the Indigenous contributions that sustained Mexico-Tenochtitlan in the sixteenth century; and the groundbreaking research of Rebecca Dufendach.   

 

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