We Haven’t Always Had Epidemics. Why Now?

The following is excerpted from 30 Theses, a project by Jason Godesky of Anthropik. It discusses the origins of epidemic diseases, which are a relatively new phenomenon, not something we are fated to encounter. Alternative ways of life are possible. Originally posted at https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/jason-godesky-thirty-theses.

Thesis #21: On the Origin of Epidemic Disease

By Jason Godesky

The Paleolithic was not an era of perfect health. The Neanderthals, for instance, show signs of trauma consistent with those of rodeo cowboys — suggesting a certain rough and tumble life with big game. They were certainly a few diseases in circulation, and of course things happened. However, the claim so often made by progressivists that civilization has made us healthier could not be more incorrect. Civilization has most definitely made us much less healthy, and in innumerable ways.

The first has been the introduction of the epidemic disease. Epidemiologists typically divide diseases into one of two broad categories: endemic and epidemic. Endemic diseases are always circulating in a population. Most members of the population have some immunity to it. Endemic diseases can be serious, but for the most part, they are accepted as a simple fact of life, as the population grows used to them. Chicken pox is endemic to most First World populations, for example. Formally, an endemic is an infection that can be maintained in a population without external inputs. Mathematically, an endemic is a steady state, R0 x S = 1, where every single individual who is infected passes the infection on to exactly one other person. If the rate of contagion is less than that, the infection will simply die out. If it is more, it will become an epidemic.

Epidemics are another thing altogether. Epidemics are new to a population, and so burn through it without meeting any immune response whatsoever. Epidemics burn themselves out quickly, but leave much mortality and suffering in their wake. Eventually, some will begin to develop an immune response, and eventually the epidemic will kill or infect everyone it can — leaving only the immune alive (with the exception of some minority protected by the “herd effect,” who cannot be infected because they’re surrounded by people who are immune). The Plague which ravaged Europe several times over was an epidemic; each iteration was slightly less devastating than the last, as each left a larger segment of the population with immunity. When an epidemic infects the worldwide population of a species, it is a pandemic.

The epidemic disease is something new, a gift of civilization. Most epidemics are zoonotic — they come from animals. That is how we become exposed to so many unfamiliar pathogens, because once a pathogen mutates sufficiently to jump the species barrier, what was endemic to our domesticates is epidemic to us. Chicken pox, measles, smallpox, influenza, diphtheria, HIV, Marburg virus, anthrax, bubonic plague, rabies, the common cold, and tuberculosis all came from animal domestication. If epidemic diseases did arise in the Paleolithic, they were short-lived: hunter-gatherer bands were too small, and had contact with one another too infrequently to allow an epidemic to spread. It may have wiped out the whole band, but it would die out there. Domestication brought humans into sufficiently close contact with other animal species to allow their germs to adapt to our bodies, created concentrated populations where diseases could incubate, and even provided long-range trade to export those germs, once fully developed, to other concentrated populations. In Guns, Germs & Steel, Jared Diamond points to these titular germs as one of the main reasons that civilization was able to destroy all other societies. By the time the conquistadors had set into the New World, smallpox had already wiped out 99% of the native population.

Civilization did not only introduce us to disease as we know it, though. It also introduced a novel way of life that was completely at odds with the evolutionary expectations of the human body. Humans remain Pleistocene animals; the short 10,000 years since the end of the last ice age has been meager time to adapt ourselves to such a radically different way of life. One factor that aided the spread of such disease was the rampant malnutrition that accompanied the Neolithic. Where foragers rely on a vast diversity of life that is nearly impossible to eliminate, and thus almost never starve, agriculture introduced the concept of “famine” to humanity be relying completely and utterly on a small number of closely related species. Starvation in the Neolithic was rather the norm. In “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond wrote:

One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’ 9” for men, 5’ 5” for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’ 3” for men, 5’ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.

Another example of paleopathology at work is the study of Indian skeletons from burial mounds in the Illinois and Ohio river valleys. At Dickson Mounds, located near the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers, archaeologists have excavated some 800 skeletons that paint a picture of the health changes that occurred when a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming around A. D. 1150. Studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of Massachusetts show these early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced by a bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a threefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. “Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was bout twenty-six years,” says Armelagos, “but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years. So these episodes of nutritional stress and infectious disease were seriously affecting their ability to survive.”

[Editor’s note: these low life expectancy numbers are largely due to high rates of infant mortality. Like in most other large mammal species, individuals who lived past adolescence in paleolithic human societies often lived a full lifespan of 60-80 years.]

Over the course of millennia, we have gradually recovered from the enormous mortality of the Neolithic, to the point where most First Worlders now enjoy a quality of life just shy of our Mesolithic ancestors. That doesn’t mean our current diet is healthy, only that it is plentiful enough to keep us alive. Boyd Eaton called it “affluent malnutrition” — we eat a great deal of food, but what we eat is horribly maladapted to the human body. Affluent malnutrition is so lacking in basic micronutrients that many of us require vitamin supplements….

…The “diseases of civilization” are so well known as to hardly bear repeating. While we work far longer hours than even the most overworked forager, our work is quite different. Affluent First Worlders are too busy working extraordinarily long hours sitting behind desks to exercise, while agrarian societies emphasize back-breaking labor for the torso, back and arms. A cursory examination of the human body’s construction shows that it is adapted best to one activity: walking. Whether hunting or gathering, most of a forager’s short work day consists simply of walking for hours at a time. The sedentism of First World life has led to a host of maladies.

At the same time, we suffer from the psychosomatic and mental disorders that are the result of such stressful lives. We are primates adapted to small, egalitarian bands, but we find ourselves locked into large-scale, hierarchical societies. Even primates that are adapted to hierarchy show signs of stress when they occupy the lower ranks — and theirs are hierarchies that are not nearly as pyramidal, as if to increase the number of stressed-out unfortunates as much as possible. Our personality and our ability to cope can allow us to survive such a maladaptive situation, but we feel it all the same, particularly with the constant, ever-escalating competitiveness of a civilization that must always grow or die. High stress is endemic to the civilized population. It has become the leading cause of death in the United States. At the same time, while one quarter of U.S. citizens suffer from some form of mental illness, one would be hard-pressed to find any examples of mental illness among foragers.

Indeed, even those maladies which we consider to be merely the onset of old age, such as frailty and senility, are difficult to find among foragers, suggesting that even these may be the result of a maladapted, civilized diet.

Pleistocene humans were not always in perfect health, but the natural state of health for most animals in the wild is far, far superior to that which we find ourselves in. Humans did not evolve to be unique in the animal kingdom for our sickly, malnourished, and weak forms. We evolved to enjoy the same level of health as every other animal, but for 10,000 years, we have lived contrary to human nature, creating a great deal of stress and mental anguish. We eat foods that are not entirely edible for us as staples, and in ever-increasing quantities to counterbalance their anti-nutritional effects.

Published  under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

5 thoughts on “We Haven’t Always Had Epidemics. Why Now?”

  1. Stunning! I just learned more useful information in 10 minutes than in all of high school.

    Three supporting notes:

    1) “Western man” did not regain the adult longevity of hunter-gatherers until the 20th century.

    2) Radio nutritionist and natural health advocate Dr. Bob Marshall reports that, due to modern agriculture, so-called “whole wheat” today has less than half the protein of whole wheat in the 1880s. (Marshall also warns against products containing “enriched” wheat flour, which includes supplemental iron of a form better known to mining than to food, and which can accumulate dangerously in the liver.

    3) Brenda Cobb, founder of the Living Foods Institute, claims she cured her own metastatic cancer by rejecting chemo and radiation in favor of a raw, vegan diet. For 6 months after leaving her oncologist’s office, Cobb’s diet consisted largely of a smoothie made from an avocado, a peeled apple (apple peel supposedly inhibits the enzyme activity critical to a healthy immune system), 1/2 cup total of 2 different freshly-sprouted beans or seeds, a tablespoon or so of dried red marine algae (a.k.a. Nova Scotia dulse), your choice of greens (she recommends parsley, celery, and cucumber for taste), and purified water, preferably consumed within 18 hours of blending (all ingredients organic — especially the apple).
    At the end of 6 months, Cobb was cancer-free. She has countless testimonials from clients who have cured cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc., simply by purging their bodies of processed and cooked food toxins, and making their own immune systems stronger than their diseases.

  2. I’m familiar with the current research of still existing hunter-gatherers, which purports to show that hunter-gatherers who survive childhood live as long as anyone, but I’m very suspect of this conclusion. The honest researchers in the field have pointed out that contact with the outside world may be extending the lifespans of current hunter-gatherers by providing them with some benefits that they would not have in the solely natural world. It only make sense that humans living in nature as hunter-gatherers die once women reach menopause, and unless hunter-gatherers figure out how to floss with natural fibers, their teeth would all fall out from gum disease by the time they’re 40 or so.

    But the far more important issue is that agriculture is bad for the Earth and everything that lives here, regardless of whether it’s good or bad for humans alone. THAT’s the biggest reason by far that we should oppose agriculture and its resulting civilization. Obsessing on humans to the exclusion of all else is the root of all the problems.

  3. One way archeologists are able to determine pre-agriculture humans is by looking at their teeth. Post-agricultural humans’ teeth are rotting. Also, the mortality rate of hunter-gatherer societies are also determined by archeological evidence, not just modern.

  4. @Justin McAffee
    The new research focused on current hunter-gatherers, not archeological evidence. They then changed their conclusions about the average lifespan of hunter-gatherers based on the study of current ones.

    Also, I didn’t mention teeth, I mentioned gum disease. You don’t have to eat refined sugar and get cavities in order to get gum disease, they’re independent of each other. Everyone gets gum disease if they don’t floss, it’s totally natural.

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