Native American tribes of southeastern Massachusetts, approx. 1620 (Figure 1 from Marr and Cathey)
An article in the new issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases offers leptospirosis, caused by Leptospira spirochetes, as another possible agent of the 1616-1619 epidemic. This is based not on any new information but on an examination of the lifestyle of the Native Americans of early 17th century New England.
Rats infected with Leptospira may have stowed away in the ships that sailed from Europe to the New World. Because Leptospira lives in the kidney tubules of chronic carriers, infected rats released into the New World would have contaminated their surroundings every time they urinated. Since Leptospira can survive in moist soil and fresh water, indigenous rodents and other animals could have become chronically infected with Leptospira, further spreading the spirochete throughout the region. The Indian lifestyle provided plenty of opportunities for exposure to Leptospira through skin abrasions and swallowing of contaminated water or food. Their high-risk activities included the following:
- walking around barefooted
- storing food accessible to rodents
- swimming and bathing in streams and ponds
- working on moist soil to raise and harvest crops
While the authors should be commended for even considering a disease of a spirochete that is often ignored (at least by those in the developed world), I don't think Leptospira is what killed off the Indians. One strong argument against leptospirosis being the cause of the 1616-1619 epidemic is that Leptospira is not hardy enough to survive the cold winters that Mother Nature inflicts upon New England. Since the fatalities continued through the winter, leptospirosis is unlikely to be the culprit.
Whatever the cause, the epidemic may have been a pivotal event that facilitated English colonization of coastal Massachusetts since the surviving Indians lacked the capacity to resist the newcomers.
Marr, J.S., & Cathey, J.T. (2010). New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic among Native Americans, New England, 1616–1619 Emerging Infectious Diseases, 16 (2), 281-286 DOI: 10.3201/eid1602.090276