There's a backlog of pharmaceutical news to catch up on, but I couldn't resist linking to this article from today's New York Times. It's a pet subject of mine, and the only fault I can find is the tone of surprise that comes through in it.
It's titled "Don't Blame Columbus," and it reports on studies on health and life expectancy in Pre-Columbian America. It's the most comprehensive look at the subject yet. Most of this information comes from the bones, naturally, but there's a lot of good information there. Unfortunately for the previous owners of said skeletons, the story they tell is often one of anemia, osteomyelitis, tuberculosis and malnutrition. But at least you didn't have to put up with that for too long: living to the age of 50 was a rare accomplishment - 35 to 40 was more like it.
The study found a long-term decline in health as the populations grew in different areas, which is interesting. But any surprise people have at the general results surprises me. When my brother and I were small children, we accompanied our parents to achaeological digs back in Arkansas. My father was a dentist, and he was there for some forensic work on the teeth of the Indian remains. What he told me back then has stayed with me: these folks had lousy teeth. They had cavities, they had abcesses, impactions, the lot. (The weakened condition of their gums due to lack of Vitamin C probably had a lot to do with it.)
So, growing up, I knew that the Hollywood depiction of Indian life was rather idealized. For one thing, all the movie actors had great teeth. And the young braves weren't like those 24-year-old actors - they were maybe 14. And the ancient medicine man, he wasn't 80 years old at all. He was in his 40s; he just looked 80. You never saw extra tribesmen in the background, hobbling around because of poorly set broken bones or clutching their jaws in pain. No skin problems, no infections, not even so much as a bad allergy - no doubt about it, the tribe to belong to was MGM.
You can imagine how I feel about the rest of the cheap thinking that goes along these lines. Oh, the way preindustrial cultures loved the land, lived in harmony with it while everyone ate the wholesome diet of natural purity and stayed true to those simple values that we've lost touch with. . .spare me. I'm with Hobbes: the life of man in the natural state was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. And let's not forget it.
I'd like to blame Rousseau for the whole thing - after all, he's the usual suspect for introducing the whole Nobel Savage concept. (He extended the concept to children, too, of course. Who knows what the history of philosophy would be like had he actually raised any of his brood instead of farming them all out?) But I think that the sources of this mistake - which it is, a terrible one - go deep into human nature. No matter where you go, it seems that there's always a myth of the Golden Age, the simple, pure time when everything was right.
Manure. Fertilizer. The only thing worse than mourning this illusion is trying to do something about it: you could always set up some wonderful political system to bring Arcadia back. The last hundred years have been a stupefying object lesson in what you get when you try.
Well, enough venting for one evening. I seem to have taken off into the clouds of political theory, not bad mileage considering that I started from a pathologist's report. Tomorrow we'll be back on the ground, I promise.<