History and Geography

The historical puzzle of favism is that peoples of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern societies would continue to eat a food that regularly causes illness and even death. From an evolutionary perspective, both fava bean consumption and G6PD deficiency appear to be retained in populations because they provide some protection from malaria. The correlation between the geographic distribution of these traits and malaria is one line of evidence for this relationship. Fava bean cultivation dates back to the Neolithic period in areas that have favism. Ancient Indo-European culture, and particularly Greek culture, placed remarkable emphasis on the symbolic rather than nutritional qualities of the fava bean. Alfred Andrews (1949) argues that "no plant or animal known to the Indo-Europeans has produced a more luxuriant growth of benefits than fava beans."

Fava beans have had three primary symbolic associations: the life principle, the souls of the dead, and the generative powers of male sexuality, and they are ritualistically eaten at certain times of the year, a practice that continues in European folk cultures. On the other hand, taboos against the consumption of fava beans for certain groups, particularly priests, have been reported in ancient Greece, Egypt, India, and Africa. The most famous case of such a taboo was among the Pythagoreans, who had the maxim, "It is an equal crime to eat beans and the heads of one's parents." Although many historical analyses for this taboo have been suggested, a medically informed hy pothesis based on the risk of favism appears most reasonable (Brumbaugh and Schwartz 1979).

In the history of medicine, the early clinical descriptions by the Italian physician Antonio Gasbar-rini were a landmark for the diagnosis and treatment of favism attacks of varying severity. Within the tradition of Galenic medicine, treatment, although not always for favism attacks, emphasized the reinforcement of the blood with red wine among other things. Understanding the evolutionary history of favism has been a recent development that paralleled the discovery of the malaria connection with other genetic polymorphisms like thalassemia and sickle-cell anemia. The analytical connection with G6PD deficiency was first suggested in 1956, by Crosby, and the development of a genetic screening technique for the trait created a wealth of population genetic data during the 1960s. Such data on genetic markers in populations - for example, the variants of G6PD deficiency - have a potential for historical reconstruction of population movements and culture contact (Brown 1981).

Peter J. Brown

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