A couple of weeks ago in celebration of Columbus Day, we discussed a series of books containing a quite unfavorable picture of the explorer, much of it written in his own words.
Columbus clearly was, shall we say, insensitive to the well-being of the natives he found in the New World; in fact he appears to have been insensitive to anyone else’s needs other than his own.
But one charge commonly leveled against him and the other Europeans who followed him now appears to have been exaggerated: yes the Europeans brought new devastating diseases with them to the New World, but according to the NY Times, the natives were already in pretty bad shape:
- 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.
….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 death.
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.