Before 1492: New World Was No Eden

November 1, 2002

It is well-established that Europeans brought a number of diseases to the New World that indigenous people had no immunity against, such as smallpox, measles, malaria and yellow fever. The epidemics that resulted decimated some Indian populations.

However, recent research indicated that the general health of Native Americans had apparently been deteriorating for centuries before 1492.

That is the conclusion of anthropologists, economists and paleopathologists who studied the health of people in the Western Hemisphere over the last 7,000 years by analyzing more than 12,500 skeletons from 65 sites in North and South America.

  • Rating the skeletons for signs of various diseases, they found that the healthiest sites for Native Americans were typically the oldest sites, predating Columbus by more than 1,000 years.
  • More recent pre-Columbians were malnourished and in poorer health.
  • However, they found that nomadic 19th century Indians of the Great Plains enjoyed excellent health, near the top of the index.

The researchers attributed the widespread decline in health to agriculture and urban living. Urban diets were less varied and diseases spread easily -- as happened in the earliest cultures of the Middle East.

  • 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.

Interestingly, other paleopathologists have recently discovered clear traces of tuberculosis in the lungs of 1,000-year-old Peruvian mummies, evidence that native Americans might already have been infected with some of the diseases previously thought to have been brought to the New World by European explorers.

Source: John Noble Wilford, "Don't Blame Columbus for All the Indians' Ills," New York Times, October 29, 2002.

 

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