Prehistoric Europe

Hunting-Gathering Societies and the Neolithic Revolution

It is often observed that hunter-gatherers are healthier than their supposedly more "civilized" contemporaries. This anthropological observation of the still-extant human groupings that practice hunting-gathering has been extrapolated into the past to suggest that, because of a meat-rich diet, very low population density, natural birth control through lactation, and a variety of other factors, hunter-gatherers innately enjoyed more healthful circumstances than did other preindustrial societies. There is, however, little evidence of any kind to support such claims. Skeletal remains have been used to claim a life expectancy similar to that of the rural poor of the nineteenth century (Birdsell 1957; McNeill 1976). (What is less obvious is that skeletal remains from the very distant past will tend to support this hypothesis because the skeletons of children and infants neither weather as well nor were often buried as carefully as those of adults.) Although it is true that hunter-gatherer groups do not have enough population to support measles, they do have diseases exquisitely adapted to their circumstances. An example of this phenomenon is kuru, a slow virus that afflicts cannibal aborigines. There is no reason to imagine that hunting-gathering peoples of the past did not experience diseases equally consonant with their particular patterns of life. There is no real foundation for the claim that the hunter-gatherers of prehistoric Europe were healthier than people from the Neolithic and pre-Industrial periods. We simply lack any evidence to support a conclusion of any type.

Likewise, we do not know much about the changes in disease ecology occasioned by the development of agriculture and the first numerically more substantial groupings of persons. Observations about remaining societies that mirror Neolithic times, or even about remaining hunting-gathering peoples, are suspect simply because the groups' mere sur vival indicates something not generalizable about them. Of the population of Europe before historical times, it would be difficult to frame a convincing argument for a number with an order of magnitude error included.

It is felt that parasitic, especially helminthic infestations are among the oldest of diseases (Smith 1983), but beyond noting the claim, we can do nothing to confirm it. The prehistory of Europe is just that; to impose a demographic and disease structure upon it is folly.

Bronze Age Civilizations

The civilizations of Mycenaean Greece and of Minoan Crete are discoveries of the last century. Before excavations at the site of Troy and among the Greek cities of Homeric renown, along with Crete, the period covered by the Homeric epics was an unknown. Scholarship has translated much, inferred much, and given us striking impressions of these lost societies. From the point of view of disease, we have little to offer. Mycenaean civilization seems to have fallen to outside invaders. There is no evidence to support disease as a major factor in the decline of either mainland Greek or Minoan civilization. The latter may plausibly be linked to a natural disaster. The disease history of these fascinating cultures remains beyond our grasp.

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