Medicinal Anthropology

So, I finally got most of that reading assignment in 1491 done last night, and there was one big thing that struck out at me. At one point in our lives, we are all taught that disease played a big role in the European’s conquest of the New World, but this book put it into a whole new light. It also made me ask a lot of questions:

  1. What exactly killed all these people? We all know about the smallpox epidemic, and that there was measles and influenza in there as well. We all know that due to the high rate of exposure in Europe, the conquerors had relative immunity to them and therefore weren’t susceptible to the diseases. But we sequenced the genome of the plague a few years ago, so why is this considered a non-issue? Why is it not important for us to use the same techniques to identify the bacterium and viruses that took these victims? We know roughly when many of the epidemics took place, so theoretically we should be able to start poking around after remains have been dated. In my opinion, knowing precisely what it is that killed who, and more specifically what strains, is just as important to our history and to anthropology as knowing what caused the Black Death.
  2. Were the native populations suffering from some kind of immune issues? I think they were, and here’s why. Mann brings up a very interesting point in the book, that it is not in the evolutionary benefit for bacteria/viruses/whatever to kill their hosts. They want to keep their hosts alive so that they can mutate and continue to infect, thus continuing the species. So then why on earth did such a large number of natives die of these diseases? Some estimates are as high as 90% of the population succumbing to disease, that just doesn’t sound like good Darwinian form to me. Kill 9 out of 10 people, the remaining 1 is now immune, just doesn’t sound to me like a good idea for the continuance of the species. Conventional theory is that the populations were so susceptible due to the simple fact that they had never been exposed to the microbes, but I honestly think that it is a gross oversimplification. The book goes on to give a rather good basic description of the immune system for non-bio folks, which was when the light bulb went off in my head: what if the native populations were immunodeficient? What if the problem wasn’t that the natives lacked the appropriate antibodies to keep away the smallpox, they lacked the ability to make antibodies to fight the virus once it showed up? The virus wiped out everyone unable to form these antibodies, everyone with these immune system problems, leaving only those with the strong enough genetic makeup to go on and continue the species.

I really have a strong urge to go sequence some native genomes. Many PIDDs have known genetic markers, and have known mutations. I wonder if we were to sequence these genomes, we would find that the native populations had more issues going on than being the “virgin soil” that Mann calls them.

Who wants to help me write grant proposals?


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