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NYTimes.com Article: Don't Blame Columbus for All the Indians' Ills

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  • ann.popplestone@tri-c.cc.oh.us
    This article from NYTimes.com has been sent to you by ann.popplestone@tri-c.cc.oh.us. Don t Blame Columbus for All the Indians Ills October 29, 2002 By JOHN
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 29, 2002
      This article from NYTimes.com
      has been sent to you by ann.popplestone@....

      Don't Blame Columbus for All the Indians' Ills

      October 29, 2002

      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
      in August.

      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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