So, to give of context, the setting I am writing is very out-there. But I still wanna take a realistic approach to demographics and similar issues. In the setting, a very fantastical apocalyptic event occurs in an otherwise real world 1100s AD. This, among other things, involves old world animals and disease reaching the Americas. However, there is no colonization.

So, to ask a more general question, could Mesoamerica demographically recover from a smallpox epidemic if Europe doesn't colonize it? If so, roughly how long would it take? For the record, the Mesoamerican civilizations do have ironworking and draft animals now.

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    $\begingroup$ Books have been written on the extent of the depopulation of the Americas - hell there's books just about the various estimates of population before anything happened - and this question would probably take another book to answer. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    May 6 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ Europe did recover from the 6th century plague of Justinian and from the 14th century Black Death. (Note than less then 200 years after the Black Death, Spain began its massive conquests in the Americas.) I am sure you have researched these two very similar historical occurrences. The question should clarify what more specific detail is needed. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 6 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ Asking about how the actual Americas would have recovered is, as per @KeizerHarm comment, a book in itself. Asking about a hypothetical set of civilizations that have ironworking and draft animals (and, since those cannot occur in isolation, a whole heap of other, unspecified changes) without providing sufficient detail makes it outright impossible to answer. $\endgroup$ May 7 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because it is an off-topic high concept question, meaning it's hypothetical, opinion-based, too broad, too story-based, writing the story for the author, and leads to all answers having equal value... all of which are prohibited in the help center. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 7 at 2:47
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    $\begingroup$ This is a very broad question. Even if you discount the lack of written records compared to Europe in similar disaster situations, there are a bunch of other (mostly unknown) factors that would affect the rate of recovery e.g. level of societal breakdown, support from surrounding civilisations and environmental/chance effects. $\endgroup$ May 8 at 10:24

3 Answers 3


Let's look at Europe after the Black Death

Why is this a good analogue? Firstly - the Black Death was, as a singular event, more devastating that Small Pox.

Secondly - Europe keeps pretty good records of things which means we have some pretty good info to base our answers off of.

From Wikipedia - the answer is 'Between 80-150 years' - however, there are some assumptions in there around population density and the type of work around. During this time - I believe we hadn't transitioned to 'professional farming', it was the end of Feudalism (some say that the labor shortage meant the workers had much better bargaining leverage on the barons that lead to the end).

The great meso-american civilizations I think were very much comparable to Europe in terms of cities/population density - it seems the more densely populated areas bounced back more quickly (going from 100 people to 60 is less of an imposition than going from 10 to 6)

So based on that - I think to be on the safe side, you could say:

Within 200 years

  • $\begingroup$ OTOH the previous Mesoamerican collapses seem to have been followed by longer 'dark ages' than in the Old World. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 7 at 8:13

It is not possible to say with any certainty as there are too many variables. However there have been several instances of population collapses in Mesoamerica due to local climate changes brought on by overexploitation of resources or volcanism.

Examples include The Olmec people hundreds of years BCE, the population crash at the end of the Maya preclassic period before building again into the classic Maya period. And the great city of Teotihuacan with its vast temple of the Sun pyramid had been abandoned before the Aztecs time and they had no knowledge of its original inhabitants despite living in a similar area.

The demographic crashes such as the one at the end of the preclassic period took hundreds of years to recover from and many of the older settlements were simply abandoned. I imagine something similar could happen with a smallpox epidemic and it might well take hundreds of years for the population to recover. That's probably as good as it gets.


As others have suggested, a couple centuries is the ball-bark estimate.

There is an effect that would probably be very strong. That would be loss of some local cultural groups, and changes in cultural patterns. This was also observed in many other places that have had severe epidemics.

What happens is this. There is a local culture, say a group that shares a language, a religion, a farming process, a hunter-gatherer culture, etc. Think of the various groups of natives in the great plains. Or the folks in the very far north who had a combined ocean-ice and land-based lifestyle.

Then the epidemic comes through and removes a significant fraction of them. And this has the effect that many critical skills are removed. The people who know how to do some critical skill all die, or enough of them die that the culture cannot maintain continuity.

So they lose some critical skills. The guy in the far north who knows how to make those great kayaks. Or the guy in the great plains who can read the weather and tell you when to plant corn. Or the story teller of the group, so that all those great lessons are lost. And so on.

So losing even as few as 10% of the population has caused local villages to collapse and become uninhabitable. And when a significant number of villages are lost, then trade routes and cultural contact can collapse with them. And entire cultures can collapse. Or, if it is not too extreme, fragment and withdraw from wide areas.

So the result is, cultures that were previously stable with one pattern, will emerge drastically changed. The pattern is Europe after the Black Death. Social patterns that existed for centuries were radically weakened and, shortly thereafter, radically changed.

The changes are very difficult to predict since it depends exactly where the worst effects fall. In Europe, one effect was that the nobility was significantly weakened relative to commoners. Thus various political and cultural processes that we are still feeling the effects of were strongly moved forward.

So the numbers may recover in a century or two. But the social effects may be quite drastic and discernable basically permanently.


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