Indigenous Diseases

Those European explorers who commented upon the health of the indigenous people they contacted described them as strong, well-shaped, clean, noble, and generally healthy (Moodie 1973; Howe 1984). Because the weak, ill, or deformed were unlikely to be among the greeting party, such an appearance might be made even if endemic diseases were present. Although geographic isolation had protected Pacific peoples from the epidemic diseases that had swept Europe, Africa, and the New World, their continued if infrequent contacts with Southeast Asia, ever since the initial migrations to Australia and New Guinea, exposed them to some of the diseases extant there (Ramenofsky 1989). Diseases known (from explorers' journals or dated skeletal remains) to be present in the region before first contact with Europeans include malaria (restricted to Melanesia as far south as Vanuatu), respiratory infections, enteritis, rheumatism and degenerative arthritis, dental wear and decay, eye infections, filariasis, ringworm, boils, tropical ulcers, yaws, and a disfiguring ulceration of the skin. Infant mortality rates were high, and those who survived could expect to live into their thirties (Howe 1984; Denoon, with Dugan and Marshall 1989).

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