Published On: Thu, Aug 1st, 2013

Sisal: In the Footsteps of the Early Explorers of Maya Culture – Part IX: Health Issues

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Story and Photos by Byron D. Augustin

This article is the final piece in a nine-part series focusing on the early 19th century explorers of Maya culture in Yucatan.  The men who introduced Europe and the United States to the wonders and mysteries of the lost cities of the Maya were a hardy and adventurous group of individuals who seldom thought of the dangers to their personal health while uncovering the secrets of a great civilization.  Almost all of them would suffer from acute cases of malaria, intestinal disorders, and fevers as a result of their time in Yucatan.

Anopheles mosquito, carrier of malaria parasite

Anopheles mosquito, carrier of malaria parasite

The words malaria, fever, chills, and ague are generously scattered throughout the books and reports of the explorers.  Ague is a French word that entered the English language in the 14th century.  Although the word is seldom used in modern medicine it was commonly used during the time our explorers were actively visiting the Maya ruins.  Ague describes a sudden and sometimes-violent attack of fever, chills, and sweating, such as a person infected with malaria might experience.  Those symptoms can also be caused by serious, life-threatening infections brought on by bacterial contamination of drinking water and food, stomach parasites, and viruses.

It is interesting that none of the explorers of this period thought that their medical problems were something other than malaria.  However, they exposed themselves to bacterial infections consistently by drinking contaminated water and eating unwashed fruits and vegetables.  They also exposed themselves to dangerous bacterial infections and water-borne parasites when they bathed in the stagnant waters of the aguadas.

The symptoms of viral and bacterial infections, as well as parasites are similar to malaria, but usually last for a shorter period of time.  If these infections are serious, they can be life threatening.  High fevers accompanied by dehydration, vomiting, and diarrhea can cause death in a week’s time.  It is hard to image that some of the explorers did not suffer from “Montezuma’s Revenge” or the medically correct term of traveler’s diarrhea, at some point in their explorations.  Yet, gentlemen of that period did not write about such personal conditions as diarrhea and vomiting.

Some of the explorers were not very positive when describing health and medical issues in Yucatan.  Benjamin Moore Norman wrote, “The climate of Merida, though very dry, and not subject to great changes, is productive of febrile diseases at all seasons of the year, from which even the natives are not exempted.  Their bilious, much resembles the yellow fever; and, in many cases proves fatal.  The fever and ague is no stranger here.  Pulmonary complaints are common, and consumption carries off many.  This malady most frequently shows itself after severe attacks of fever and ague, and makes a conquest of its victim in a very short period.”  During his visit to Valladolid, he noted that there was not a single doctor or pharmacy in the entire district.  After his visit to Uxmal he described suffering from a fever, which all strangers were subjected to in this country.

John L. Stephens

John L. Stephens

John L. Stephens was even more harsh than Norman in his assessment of the medical situation in Yucatan.  “The condition of the whole country in regard to medical aid is deplorable.  Except at Campeachy and Merida there are not regular physicians, nor even apothecaries’ shops.  In the villages where there are curas (padres), the whole duty of attending the sick devolves upon them.  They have, of course, no regular medical education, but practice upon some old treatise or manuscript recipes, and even in their small practice they are trammeled by want of medicines.  But in villages where there are no curas, there is no one to prescribe for the sick.  The rich go to Campeachy or Merida, and put themselves under the hands of a physician; the poor linger and die, the victims of ignorance and empiricism.”

Maya Shaman

Maya Shaman

In many respects, it is a mystery that none of the explorers encountered or wrote about traditional Maya medicine.  The Maya were very intelligent and practiced medicine which included a blend of religion and science.  Their priests were highly trained in surgery, suturing wounds, treating fractures, and prescribing herbal medicines for common ailments such as diarrhea.  Plants like chaya, cacao, avocado and perhaps as many as 1,500 different plant species were used in medical treatments. Curanderos and shamans are still practicing in the Yucatan and many individuals from the United States claim to have been cured of serious diseases, such as cancer, by native Maya healers.

Maya spiritual cleansing ceremony

Maya spiritual cleansing ceremony

Malaria was the most dangerous of all afflictions the explorers faced.  Friedrichsthal, Stephens, Catherwood, and Cabot all had life threatening episodes with malaria, that permanently damaged their health.  Stephens and Catherwood had originally intended to make a single trip to Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan.  However, Catherwood fell deathly ill at Uxmal, and Stephens, while observing that Catherwood’s constitution was severely shattered, made an executive decision to leave Yucatan immediately.  If Catherwood’s health was restored in the United States, they would return and finish their original goals.

In October of 1841, they returned to Sisal, spent a few days in Merida, and then set out for Uxmal.  This time they planned to be in Uxmal during the dry season, hoping to avoid the peak period when contracting malaria was most dangerous.  Fate intervened, as the rains continued that year into January and February.  The threat of malaria hung over Uxmal like dense fog.  Stephens wrote, “Among all the haciendas, Uxmal had a reputation pre-eminent for its unhealthiness.”  Fifty years later Holmes wrote, “Uxmal had a very bad reputation for malaria; it was said that not child born on the hacienda ever survived to grow up there.”

Hacienda Uxmal (1800s)

Hacienda Uxmal (1800s)

Stephens, Catherwood, and Cabot stayed at Uxmal for six weeks and all three were infected with malaria.  Catherwood was stricken while Stephens and Cabot were away scouting the Maya site of Labna.  As Catherwood drifted in and out of violent fevers and chills he penned what he thought might be his last letter.

“The illness is upon me with renewed vigor.  Stephens and Cabot have not returned, and I fear for them as well, as it has been over a fortnight since their excursion to Labna, a bit south of here.  Stephens may have been more accurate than dear Dr. Cabot in his assessment of my condition.  Perhaps I waited too long to leave this mosquito-infested hell they call Yucatan.

¨I fear Stephens, you may be the first to read this journal, having returned to find your humble partner rotting in this glorious, terrible jungle.  What will you think of me then?  I imagine the horror and denial in your voice.  “Why Cabot, the malaria finally took its toll upon his mind.  These are the rambling hallucinations of a man driven mad with disease.”  Perhaps you will even choose to burn my sketches and entries, feeling shame for your lunatic friend.  I assure you, however, dearest Stephens, I am in my right mind, at least at this writing, and that all I pen here is true.

¨May God in heaven forgive me for my transgressions and the unholy acts I put to paper.  And may you forgive me as well, good friend, for failing you.  I am as weak in spirit as in mind, and succumbed to the sins of greed, lust, and curiosity.  I knew not my own true nature until I stumbled upon the entrance of hell.”

None of the explorers could explain the reasons why they were infected with malaria, but several of them thought it was the result of miasma (my-AZ-muh).  The word miasma came from the Greek language, meaning pollution or defilement.  The word was first used in 1665, when many people, including doctors, believed that multiple diseases were caused by breathing bad air from decomposing organic matter, like swamps.  The word malaria is derived from the Italian, mala aria, or bad air.

Miasma Theory Art (1830)

Miasma Theory Art (1830)

Stephens, in particular, confirmed his support of the miasma theory when he wrote, “a sudden rain forced me to crawl into a room at a ruin site with several Indians, where I was forced to breath a damp and unwholesome atmosphere for more than an hour.”  In Nohacacab, Stephens group stayed in a convent where they noted puddles of water and green mold that they thought might bring on an occurrence of fever and ague.

When any of the explorers arrived at Uxmal, they had an invitation to stay at the Hacienda Uxmal, owned by Don Simon Peon.  Their other choice was to stay in rooms at the ancient ruins of Uxmal.  Two factors contributed to the decision to make camp at the ruins.  First, the hacienda was at least a mile and a half from the ruins, and this made the trip twice a day inconvenient.  More importantly, the hacienda was situated in a low spot and had several, large livestock tanks for watering cattle.  Stephens described the tanks of water as covered with green moss and algae, and wearing a very fever-and-aguish aspect.  As a result, they opted to stay in rooms in the Governor’s Palace, which was located on a terrace where fresh air moved more consistently.

19th century water tank / mosquito habitat

19th century water tank / mosquito habitat

Both Stephens and Norman commented on the dangers of the aguadas located a little over a mile from their residence at Uxmal.  Stephens wrote, “These aguadas are now neglected and overgrown, and perhaps, to a certain extent, are the cause of the unhealthiness of Uxmal.”  Norman who never understood the role of the aguadas, called them “ponds, which when taken in connection with the rank vegetation which borders them, engender considerable sickness during the months of autumn.”

They were so close to discovering the cause of malaria and yet so far away.  In their minds, the moss-covered water tanks and aguadas produced rotting organic matter that fouled the air and led to their fevers and chills.  Little did they know, that they had identified the source of their sickness.  However, it was not the “bad air” they produced, it was the breeding habitat for mosquitos, the carriers of malaria that they provided.

Sir Ronald Ross

Sir Ronald Ross

In August of 1897, Sir Ronald Ross dissected an Anopheles mosquito in Secunderbad, India.  As he looked through his microscope at the stomach tissue of a mosquito that had been allowed to feed on a patient with malaria, he found the malaria parasite from that patient in the mosquito’s stomach.  Finally, the world would know that mosquitoes were responsible for the transmission of the malaria parasite to humans.  While it was one of the most important medical discoveries ever made, it came too late for the mid-19th century explorers of the lost cities of the Maya.

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