In A Patriot's History, Schweikart and Allen’s claim that “[t]uberculosis existed in Central and North America” (8) appears slightly inaccurate in light of research published after their text. It is not clear, however, that their claim contradicts “research from the hard sciences” available to them, even though support for their claim remains elusive.
An excellent summary of the medical science regarding the presence of tuberculosis in pre-Columbian America appeared in Philip A. Mackowiak, Vera Tiesler Blos, Manuel Aguilar, and Jane E. Buikstra, “On the Origin of American Tuberculosis,” Clinical Infectious Diseases (15 August 2005), 515-18.
The article asserts, “it is now firmly established that tuberculosis existed in the New World before the arrival of Columbus” (516), but the origins, spread, and cause (M. tuberculosis or M. bovis) remain unknown. Moreover, conclusive evidence of tuberculosis in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica “has yet to be found” (516).
Richard H. Steckel and the Backbone of History
In his article for History News Network, “Why It's Time for a Patriot's History of the United States,” Larry Schweikart claims: “[we] note that considerable new research in the hard sciences and medicine shows that some diseases thought to be ‘transmitted’ from Europe likely were already here.”
Economist Richard H. Steckel coordinated the work of a large group of scholars that resulted in several publications, including two texts cited by Schweikart and Allen. As noted yesterday, I have not yet been able to access these books. However, several summaries of the work suggest that Schweikart and Allen correctly formulate a central generalization of this work, but then grossly distort the specifics. They correctly quote the work of this group as suggesting that the health of indigenous Americans was on a “downward trajectory” before Europeans arrived. On the other hand, errors range from semantic inaccuracies to substantive misrepresentations.
Schweikart and Allen note a study of “12,500 skeletons from sixty-five sites” (8). Steckel’s summary differs:
The combined data sets include 12,520 skeletons from 218 archeological sites representing populations who lived in the Western Hemisphere from about 4,000 B.C. to the early 20th century. For purposes of the present analysis, the samples were combined into 65 groups based on their chronological and ecological similarity.Steckel and his coauthors highlight complexities in their generalization that there was a general decline of health in the Americas.
Steckel, et al, “Variation in Health,” 270.
The average values for the health index ranged from 64.0 for Native Central Americans to 78.1 for Native North Americans from the Eastern Woodlands. As measured by the index, the examples of very good health in the 65 samples were for coastal Brazil, coastal Ecuador, and coastal Georgia, while the worst health was found at Hawikku, New Mexico, and among plantation slaves of South Carolina. Some of the best and worst health conditions were found in pre-Columbian Native American communities.Much of the decline in health appears to have stemmed from “improvements” in agriculture and the consequent growth of urban areas. Those very features of indigenous American life that Schweikart and Allen labor to conceal are the source of the decline they trumpet.
Steckel, et al, “Skeletal Health,” 149.
Groups living in paramount towns or urban settings had a health index nearly 15 points (two standard deviations) below that expressed for mobile hunter-gatherers and others not living in large permanent communities. Clearly, there is something about living in a large community that is deleterious to health. … these larger communities are fueled by an agricultural economy. Diet was also closely related to the change in the health index, with performance being lower under the triad of corn, beans and squash compared to the more diverse diet of hunter-gatherer groups.
Steckel, et al, “Variation in Health,” 272.
One of the key findings to emerge from the study is the downward trajectory of health prior to the arrival of Europeans. Historians, economists, and other social scientists have long celebrated the contributions of technological change for improvements in the human condition. However, our research underscores the importance of distinguishing between material and health aspects of the quality of life.Because indigenous Americans were civilized, their health was in decline. Hunter-gatherers were generally healthier. Indeed, nineteenth-century equestrian nomads were so healthy that they distort the general data on the improvement in health of Native Americans following colonization.
Steckel, et al, “Variation in Health,” 274.
The transition to agriculture has been widely considered a benchmark development for humanity, laying the groundwork for “civilization” and all of its elements, such as democracy, learning, art, literature, and architecture. From this perspective, humans underwent a transition from a way of life that was “nasty, brutish, and short” to one brimming with leisure and excess. The findings from the Western Hemisphere project argue that, in fact, the reverse was closer to reality. This is not to say that life went from rosy and healthy to bleak and unhealthy. That is not the case. There is a misperception by much of the public—at least the American public—that prehistoric Native Americans were the original ecologists, whose impact on the environment was minimal. Moreover, it is commonly believed that few diseases existed before the arrival of colonizing Europeans, who carried with them a suite of infectious pathogens that wiped out many native peoples. In fact, pre-Columbian people show plenty of evidence of disease. Some were among the healthiest in the study, whereas others were among those with the greatest burden of disease.Steckel and company are clear that America was not a disease-free paradise, but they do not support the counter myth that American indigenes were on the whole “fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest” (Chief Justice John Marshall, Johnson v. McIntosh ). Schweikart and Allen do not quote Marshall, but they distort the process of disease transmission when, after acknowledgment that European introduced microbes “generated a much higher level of infection,” they state, “warring Indian tribes spread the diseases among one another when they attacked enemy tribes and carried off infected prisoners” (17).
Steckel, et al, “Skeletal Health,” 152.
Richard H. Steckel, Jerome C. Rose, Clark Spencer Larsen, and Phillip L. Walker, “Variation in Health in the Western Hemisphere: 4000 B.C. to the Present.” In M. Schultz, et al., eds., Homounsere Herkunft und Zukunft: 4. Kongress der Gesellschaft für Anthropologie (GfA)Proceedings (Göttingen: Cuvillier Verlag, 2001), 270-75.
Richard H. Steckel, Jerome C. Rose, Clark Spencer Larsen, and Phillip L. Walker, “Skeletal Health in the Western Hemisphere From 4000 B.C. to the Present,” Evolutionary Anthropology 11 (2002), 142-155.