Nov. 1, 2002 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.
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