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Don't Blame Columbus for All the Indians' Ills
October 29, 2002
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
Europeans first came to the Western Hemisphere armed with
guns, the cross and, unknowingly, pathogens. Against the
alien agents of disease, the indigenous people never had a
chance. Their immune systems were unprepared to fight
smallpox and measles, malaria and yellow fever.
The epidemics that resulted have been well documented. What
had not been clearly recognized until now, though, is that
the general health of Native Americans had apparently been
deteriorating for centuries before 1492.
That is the conclusion of a team of anthropologists,
economists and paleopathologists who have completed a
wide-ranging study of the health of people living in the
Western Hemisphere in the last 7,000 years.
The researchers, whose work is regarded as the most
comprehensive yet, say their findings in no way diminish
the dreadful impact Old World diseases had on the people of
the New World. But it suggests that the New World was
hardly a healthful Eden.
More than 12,500 skeletons from 65 sites in North and South
America - slightly more than half of them from
pre-Columbians - were analyzed for evidence of infections,
malnutrition and other health problems in various social
and geographical settings.
The researchers used standardized criteria to rate the
incidence and degree of these health factors by time and
geography. Some trends leapt out from the resulting index.
The healthiest sites for Native Americans were typically
the oldest sites, predating Columbus by more than 1,000
years. Then came a marked decline.
"Our research shows that health was on a downward
trajectory long before Columbus arrived," Dr. Richard H.
Steckel and Dr. Jerome C. Rose, study leaders, wrote in
"The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the
Western Hemisphere," a book they edited. It was published
Dr. Steckel, an economist and anthropologist at Ohio State
University, and Dr. Rose, an anthropologist at the
University of Arkansas, stressed in interviews that their
findings in no way mitigated the responsibility of
Europeans as bearers of disease devastating to native
societies. Yet the research, they said, should correct a
widely held misperception that the New World was virtually
free of disease before 1492.
In an epilogue to the book, Dr. Philip D. Curtin, an
emeritus professor of history at Johns Hopkins University,
said the skeletal evidence of the physical well-being of
pre-Columbians "shows conclusively that however much it may
have deteriorated on contact with the outer world, it was
far from paradisiacal before the Europeans and Africans
About 50 scientists and scholars joined in the research and
contributed chapters to the book. One of them, Dr. George
J. Armelagos of Emory University, a pioneer in the field of
paleopathology, said in an interview that the research
provided an "evolutionary history of disease in the New
The surprise, Dr. Armelagos said, was not the evidence of
many infectious diseases, but that the pre-Columbians were
not better nourished and in general healthier.
Others said the research, supported by the National Science
Foundation and Ohio State, would be the talk of scholarly
seminars for years to come and the foundation for more
detailed investigations of pre-Columbian health. Dr.
Steckel is considering conducting a similar study of health
patterns well into European prehistory.
"Although some of the authors occasionally appear to
overstate the strength of the case they can make, they are
also careful to indicate the limitations of the evidence,"
Dr. Curtin wrote of the Steckel-Rose research. "They
recognize that skeletal material is the best comparative
evidence we have for the human condition over such a long
period of time, but it is not perfect."
The research team gathered evidence on seven basic
indicators of chronic physical conditions that can be
detected in skeletons - namely, degenerative joint disease,
dental health, stature, anemia, arrested tissue
development, infections and trauma from injuries. Dr.
Steckel and Dr. Rose called this "by far the largest
comparable data set of this type ever created."
The researchers attributed the widespread decline in health
in large part to the rise of agriculture and urban living.
People in South and Central America began domesticating
crops more than 5,000 years ago, and the rise of cities
there began more than 2,000 years ago.
These were mixed blessings. Farming tended to limit the
diversity of diets, and the congestion of towns and cities
contributed to the rapid spread of disease. In the widening
inequalities of urban societies, hard work on low-protein
diets left most people vulnerable to illness and early
Similar signs of deleterious health effects have been found
in the ancient Middle East, where agriculture started some
10,000 years ago. But the health consequences of farming
and urbanism, Dr. Rose said, appeared to have been more
abrupt in the New World.
The more mobile, less densely settled populations were
usually the healthiest pre-Columbians. They were taller and
had fewer signs of infectious lesions in their bones than
residents of large settlements. Their diet was sufficiently
rich and varied, the researchers said, for them to largely
avoid the symptoms of childhood deprivation, like stunting
and anemia. Even so, in the simplest hunter-gatherer
societies, few people survived past age 50. In the
healthiest cultures in the 1,000 years before Columbus, a
life span of no more than 35 years might be usual.
In examining the skeletal evidence, paleopathologists rated
the healthiest pre-Columbians to be people living 1,200
years ago on the coast of Brazil, where they had access to
ample food from land and sea. Their relative isolation
protected them from most infectious diseases.
Conditions also must have been salubrious along the coasts
of South Carolina and Southern California, as well as among
the farming and hunting societies in what is now the
Midwest. Indian groups occupied the top 14 spots of the
health index, and 11 of these sites predate the arrival of
The least healthy people in the study were from the urban
cultures of Mexico and Central America, notably where the
Maya civilization flourished presumably at great cost to
life and limb, and the Zuni of New Mexico. The Zuni lived
at a 400-year-old site, Hawikku, a crowded, drought-prone
farming pueblo that presumably met its demise before
European settlers made contact.
It was their hard lot, Dr. Rose said, to be farmers "on the
boundaries of sustainable environments."
"Pre-Columbian populations were among the healthiest and
the least healthy in our sample," Dr. Steckel and Dr. Rose
said. "While pre-Columbian natives may have lived in a
disease environment substantially different from that in
other parts of the globe, the original inhabitants also
brought with them, or evolved with, enough pathogens to
create chronic conditions of ill health under conditions of
systematic agriculture and urban living."
In recent examinations of 1,000-year-old Peruvian mummies,
for example, paleopathologists discovered clear traces of
tuberculosis in their lungs, more evidence that native
Americans might already have been infected with some of the
diseases that were thought to have been brought to the New
World by European explorers.
Tuberculosis bears another message: as an opportunistic
disease, it strikes when times are tough, often
overwhelming the bodies of people already weakened by
malnutrition, poor sanitation in urban centers and
debilitated immune systems.
The Steckel-Rose research extended the survey to the health
consequences of the first contacts with American Indians by
Europeans and Africans and the health of European-Americans
and African-Americans up to the early 20th century.
Not surprisingly, African-American slaves were near the
bottom of the health index. An examination of plantation
slaves buried in South Carolina, Dr. Steckel said, revealed
that their poor health compared to that of "pre-Columbian
Indian populations threatened with extinction."
On the other hand, blacks buried at Philadelphia's African
Church in the 1800's were in the top half of the health
index. Their general conditions were apparently superior to
those of small-town, middle-class whites, Dr. Steckel said.
The researchers found one exception to the rule that the
healthiest sites for Native Americans were the oldest
sites. Equestrian nomads of the Great Plains of North
America in the 19th century seemed to enjoy excellent
health, near the top of the index. They were not fenced in
to farms or cities.
In a concluding chapter of their book, Dr. Steckel and Dr.
Rose said the study showed that "the health decline was
precipitous with the changes in ecological environments
where people lived." It is not a new idea in anthropology,
they conceded, "but scholars in general have yet to absorb
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