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HEALTH OF AMERICAN INDIANS ON DECLINE BEFORE COLUMBUS

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  • Djehuti Sundaka
    http://www.osu.edu/researchnews/archive/humhelth.htm HEALTH OF AMERICAN INDIANS ON DECLINE BEFORE COLUMBUS ARRIVED IN NEW WORLD COLUMBUS, Ohio The health of
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2002
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      http://www.osu.edu/researchnews/archive/humhelth.htm
      HEALTH OF AMERICAN INDIANS ON DECLINE BEFORE COLUMBUS ARRIVED IN NEW
      WORLD

      COLUMBUS, Ohio The health of indigenous people in
      the Western Hemisphere was on a downward trajectory long before Columbus
      set foot in the Americas, researchers say.

      The rise of agriculture is partly to blame, said
      Richard Steckel, a professor of economics and anthropology at Ohio State
      University. The demands of tending domestic crops encouraged people to
      settle in larger communities, where disease was more easily spread.

      The rise of towns and cities during
      industrialization took a serious toll on health, but new evidence
      establishes a very long trail of poor health that followed the
      collective pre-Columbian efforts in creating modern civilization,
      Steckel said. He co-edited a book that looks at health trends in the
      Western Hemisphere throughout the last seven millennia.

      According to some archeologists, the urban
      revolution began long before Europeans settled the Americas.
      Sophisticated cities flourished and expanded throughout North and South
      America once people mastered agriculture. Researchers believe that
      indigenous people began domesticating crops more than 5,000 years ago.

      The current research suggests that the overall
      health of the average person declined with the development of
      agriculture, government and urbanization.

      We know that certain health problems increased
      thousands of years before Columbus set foot in the New World, Steckel
      said. We also know that complex indigenous cities were thriving by then,
      particularly in Central America.

      While the undisputed devastation of Indians in
      North and South America by New World immigrants has been the focus of
      historians who study the indigenous experience, patterns of health prior
      to the late 1400s have largely been ignored, Steckel said.

      He and his colleagues used a new tool called the
      health index to analyze more than 12,500 skeletons excavated from 65
      sites in.

      North and South America. The sites ranged in age
      from 5,000 BC to the late 19th century. The index helped researchers
      analyze skeletal remains and, in doing so, determine the extent of
      certain chronic health problems.

      Skeletons are warehouses of health history. They
      are the major source of information on the co-evolution of humans and
      disease, Steckel said.

      The researchers share their findings on the
      co-evolution of humans and disease in "The Backbone of History: Health
      and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere," (Cambridge University Press,
      2002). Steckel edited the book with Jerome Rose, a professor of
      anthropology at the University of Arkansas. The project was sponsored by
      the National Science Foundation and Ohio State.

      The book includes chapters on the health of Euro-
      and Afro-Americans in North America and Indians throughout North,
      Central and South America. The contributors gathered evidence on seven
      basic indicators of health used to assess chronic conditions that
      affected people living in the Western Hemisphere during the last 7,000
      years. The health index gave researchers the basic tools to evaluate and
      compare the health of societies living in various ecological zones.

      The index includes seven indicators of skeletal
      health measured at 65 locations in the Western Hemisphere: degenerative
      joint disease; trauma; dental health; stature; anemia; enamel
      hypoplasias; and skeletal infection.

      Each indicator was scored from zero to 100 zero
      meant that the individual had had the worst possible case of the
      indicator, while 100 meant that the skeleton had no sign of the
      affliction.

      The healthiest group, according to the index,
      lived along the coast of Brazil about 1,200 years ago. In fact, Indian
      groups were among the healthiest of all groups in the study indigenous
      sites occupied the top 14 spots of the health index, and 11 of these
      sites predate Columbus arrival. These sites ranged in age from 75 to
      7,425 years old, and covered territory in North and South America. The
      groups ranged from coastal city dwellers to the Plains Indians of the
      American Midwest.

      But Indians also accounted for some of the most
      unhealthy groups, occupying eight of the nine least-healthy slots on the
      index. The Zuni of Hawikku, New Mexico, were ranked last. At least 400
      years old, this site presumably met its demise before European settlers
      made contact. Six other indigenous sites in the least-healthy category
      were dated at least 500 years before Columbus arrived.

      The index also included European and African
      American groups. With a rank of 28 out of 65, antebellum blacks buried
      at Philadelphias African Church in the 1800s were in the top half of the
      health index. This group had health superior to small-town, middle-class
      whites, Steckel said.

      It suggests that it was possible for a socially
      disadvantaged group to carve out a life with reasonably good health in
      an early 19th-century city, Steckel said.

      On the other hand, plantation slaves buried in a
      South Carolina site ranked third to last on the health index.

      While its not surprising that slaves ranked lowest
      among the African-American sites, it is remarkable that the slaves were
      so near the bottom in overall rankings, Steckel said. Their health was
      comparable to pre-Columbian Indian populations threatened with
      extinction.

      Many of the healthiest groups included in the
      index lived along the coast. Others lived in the interior of the United
      States, where they presumably hunted for and gathered food. The
      healthiest sites were typically the oldest sites, substantially
      predating Columbus arrival. But equestrian nomads of the 19th century
      were also among the healthiest groups in the study.

      People living in rural settlements were typically
      healthy skeletons found in these areas had less evidence of any of the
      negative health indicators than did skeletons excavated from large
      settlements.

      While living in small settlements seemed to
      decrease the development and spread of disease, congested living, laced
      with migration and trade, helped lead to a decline in health, Steckel
      said. Infections increased as people began congregating in cities, and
      the worldwide spread of disease had begun by the 1400s.

      The health index gives us one way to trace the
      emergence of modern diseases as well as a way to track the early impacts
      that globalization had on the spread of disease.

      Studying historical data can help researchers
      learn about the resilience of health in developing countries, as many
      modern health problems have roots reaching deep into the past.

      But the long-term evolution of health and disease
      is not simply a story that follows from the rise of settled agriculture
      and urbanization, Steckel said. There are other variables responsible
      for health, including climate, elevation, proximity to the coast and
      topography.

      The researchers plan to analyze future versions of
      the health index using such variables.

      The Western Hemisphere project has been a pilot
      for a project with global vision, Steckel said. We want to develop these
      tools and use them in archeological sites around the world.

      #

      Contact: Richard Steckel, Steckel.1@ osu.edu. Please contact Holly
      Wagner for Dr. Steckels phone information.

      Written by Holly Wagner, (614) 292-8310;
      Wagner.235@ osu.edu
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