Disease Human Migration and History

There is a story told among the Kiowa Indians of North America's southern Great Plains about the arrival in their midst, in a time long past, of a stranger in a black suit and a tall hat. This missionary-appearing figure is confronted by Sayn-day, a mystic hero of the Kiowa.

"Who are you?" asks the stranger.

"I'm Saynday. I'm the Kiowa's Old Uncle Saynday. I'm the one who's always coming along. Who are you?" "I'm smallpox."

"Where do you come from and what do you do and why are you here?"

"I come from far away, from across the Eastern Ocean. I am one of the white men — they are my people as the Kiowa are yours. Sometimes I travel ahead of them, and sometimes I lurk behind. But I am always their companion and you will find me in their camps and in their houses."

"What do you do?"

"I bring death. My breath causes children to wither like young plants in the spring snow. I bring destruction. No matter how beautiful a woman is, once she has looked at me she becomes as ugly as death. And to men I bring not death alone but the destruction of their children and the blighting of their wives. The strongest warriors go down before me. No people who have looked at me will ever be the same." (Crosby 1986)

Stories such as this abound among indigenous peoples throughout the world. Sometimes they are simple sayings, as among the Hawaiians: "Lawe li'ili'i ka make a ka Hawai'i, lawe nui ka make a ka haole" -"Death by Hawaiians takes a few at a time; death by white poeple takes many." Among some, such as the Maori of New Zealand, they are more cryptic: White people and their diseases are "he taru tawhiti" - "a weed from afar." And among still others elaborate systems of disease differentiation have emerged, as among the Southwest American Indian Pima and Papago, who distinguish kd:cim mumkidag, or "staying sicknesses," from 'dimmeddam, or "wandering sicknesses." Staying sicknesses are those the Indians have always had; they are noncontagious, and whom they afflict and the appropriate response to them are well understood. Wandering sicknesses, in contrast, originated among other, distant peoples, principally white peoples; they are relatively new to the Indians, are highly contagious and indiscriminate in whom they attack, and are "wrong" because there is no way to defend against them (Bahr et al. 1974).

To some Western readers these may seem like quaint notions among simple peoples. In fact, they are clear-eyed and accurate recognitions of historical and ongoing reality. For millennia upon millennia, over most of the earth's surface, the vast majority of humankind lived in relatively isolated enclaves. Diseases, of course, existed in those enclaves, but among most peoples for most of that time, none of the diseases were so-called crowd-type ecopathogenic infections such as smallpox, yellow fever, typhoid, malaria, measles, pertussis, polio, and so on (Newman 1976). Nor for most of the history of humankind did the majority of the world's populations suffer from such afflictions as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, gallstones, renal stones, coronary heart disease, appendicitis, diverticular disease, and more, including various forms of cancer (Trowell and Burkitt 1981).

During these huge stretches of time, before humans developed the ability to move great distances into areas inhabited by other humans, population growth among these generally quite healthy people was restrained by the same phenomenon that restrained growth among other animals - limited resources. With the rise of agriculture, however, the domestication of animals, and the first appearance of urban communities in Sumeria about 5,000 years ago, the resource restraint on population growth began to loosen. But another restraint emerged-infectious disease.

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