One medical practice employed extensively by the Aztecs but abhorred by the Spanish conquistadores was bathing. This included daily washing in a river, lake, stream, or pond as well as more elaborate medicinal baths. The Aztecs built temazcalli
, steamrooms similar to ancient Roman hypocausts. These beehive-shaped structures of stone or brick were heated, and the patient rested inside while various combinations of drugs were burned in the smoke or added directly to the steam to treat the patient. Sometimes this was accompanied by body massage with various types of leaves and ointments. Every village had one or more temazcalli
, and they were used to treat everything from fevers and boils to insect allergies and snakebites. They were also used to treat exhaustion and aching muscles as well as to speed the recovery of women following childbirth.
The extensive use of baths by the Indians was viewed with great consternation by the Spanish, who thought that such frequent bathing was debilitating to the body and could lead to terrible diseases. Colonial officials repeatedly tried to outlaw such practices as harmful to the Indians, and the temazcalli disappeared in Mexico, but persisted in the remote areas.
Virtually all of the Indians of North America used steambaths similar to the Aztec temazcalli. Groups as widely separated as the natives of California and Delaware built semisubterranean earthen structures entered by a tunnel. The Alaskan natives built similar baths covered with logs, while the Creeks covered theirs with hides and mats. Many of the natives in the southeastern United States slept all night in the sweat lodges during the winter months and each morning upon awaking ran from the lodge to jump into the cold water of the river. The Plains Indians used a temporary structure made of branches and leaves covered in blankets. Still today, Indians throughout the United States and Canada use the sweat bath as a ritual part of religious ceremonies and powwows and for general physical and mental hygiene.
The widespread and persistent use of the steambaths and of water baths by the Indians paralleled the practices of ancient Mediterranean cultures, but stood in sharp contrast to the practices of the Europeans who arrived in the New World. The bathing probably served to reduce diseases among the Indians prior to the European arrival and thereby partly accounted for the general freedom from epidemic diseases. The destruction of the lodges by the Europeans and their denunciation of frequent bathing quite probably contributed to the rapid spread of Old World epidemics among the natives of the Americas.