Early Urban Environments

Before the domestication of various kinds of birds and mammals, hunter-gatherer societies had little everyday contact with large numbers of animals except, in some cases, dogs. As humans learned to contain, control, and breed pigs, sheep, cattle, goats, horses, and fowl, however, they were forced to share those animals' environments. Although their dietary protein intake thus increased, so too did their exposure to pox viruses, distemper, measles, influenza, and other maladies, all diseases carried by the newly domesticated creatures in their midst.

Damaging as these diseases were when first encountered, in time they became the troublesome, but relatively nonlethal childhood diseases of the evolved stockbreeding societies. The diseases, along with the animals, in effect became domesticated, but only for the specific people who had endured the lengthy immunization process. As these people moved from place to place, encountering other groups, they deposited pathogens that were disas trous to the newly contacted, nonimmune communities. Their travels were rarely extensive, however, at least in the early centuries of animal husbandry, agriculture, and urbanization.

A major problem at this stage of social development was founded on the concentration of humans in the new protourban centers, initially in the Middle East and later elsewhere. First, the people in such locales were dependent on those in the surrounding countryside for food supplies; any depletion of those supplies, because of drought or other natural disaster, spelled catastrophe for the urban dwellers. In addition, the concentration of a large number of people in a relatively small geographic area greatly increased the opportunity for the infectious communication of various diseases from one human host to another. On occasion, and in the short term, this resulted in epidemic outbreaks of disease. Generally, however, and in the long term, it probably meant the creation of endemic diseases that did not erupt like firestorms, but that gnawed away at the well-being of the community and in part undermined its ability to reproduce.

A larger consequence of the urbanization-disease dynamic was that urban populations were often unable to sustain themselves without external support and a steady stream of in-migration from the countryside. This was a perpetual problem from the time of the rise of urban centers until the nineteenth century; throughout this period, observes William H. McNeill (1979), "rural peasantries [were required] to produce a surplus of children as well as a surplus of food to sustain urban life and the civilized social structures cities created."

This is not to say, however, that in-migrating rural peasants were greeted as saviors of civilization. On the contrary, they were fodder to be wasted in the interests of civilization's continuance. As Lawrence Stone (1977), among others, has vividly shown, as late as the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the centers of Western civilization were cesspools of disease, exploitation, starvation, and death. In Manchester, England, for example, for much of the nineteenth century, the mortality rate for children under 5 was around 50 percent (Forbes 1986). All during this time urban dwellers in Europe were dying of bubonic plague, smallpox, syphilis, typhus, typhoid fever, measles, bronchitis, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and other diseases (e.g., Matos-sian 1985), which still had not spread to what - to Europeans, at least - were the most remote portions of the globe.

Migration outward to the Caribbean, the Ameri-

cas, and the Pacific from the densely packed, disease-infested urban centers of Europe and then Asia-with an involuntary assist from Africa -probably created the greatest explosion of epidemic disease and the worst human catastrophe the world has ever seen. Before turning to that holocaust, which began in the late fifteenth century, it is worth glancing at the first great disease exchange that brought both China and Rome nearly to their knees long before the peoples of the Pacific or the Americas would experience the initial forays of bacteria and viruses.

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