The Pre Columbian Period

The belief that the American Indians were indigenous persisted until relatively recently. But today it is generally accepted that the first Americans were actually wandering Asians who took advantage of the prevailing ice age to cross the Bering Straits from Siberia to Alaska and enter a continent devoid of human life. Then, perhaps 10,000 years ago most of the large ice caps melted and seas rose, inundating the land bridge and sealing off the Asian pioneers in what would later be called the New World.

They were hunter-gatherers, these pioneers, with a nomadic way of life, which meant that when a band became too numerous to function efficiently, a part would break off and move on to new lands. Gradually this hiving out took them southward, and archeological remains tentatively suggest that some 9,000 years ago the southerly thrust finally came to an end as they reached the southern tip of South America.

It seems to have been much later, however, that the first humans settled the islands of the Caribbean, although there is neither a firm date nor agreement on the mainland from which those first to arrive came. For example, the northern Antilles, Cuba, is a short sailing distance from both southern Florida and the Yucatan Peninsula, whereas on the other end of the island chain, to the southeast, lies Trinidad, just off the South American continent.

When the first Spaniards reached the Caribbean, they found at least four Indian cultures whose bearers had apparently arrived at different times, with the levels of those cultures reflecting the stage of human development on the mainlands when the migrations occurred. There is some evidence to indicate that one of these peoples may have come from Florida, although this is in dispute. Most, however, came from the northeast of South America. Because of these various migrations it is probably safe to assume that the Caribbean Indians carried most of the same kinds of pathogens as their mainland counterparts, meaning that they too were blessed with a freedom from illnesses that had been denied to most of the rest of the world's peoples for millennia. The pioneers who had crossed into the Americas made that crossing before the Old World was caught up in its Neolithic revolution. This was before Old World hunter-gatherers with stone tools (which the pioneers were) became sedentary farmers with metal tools, and settled down to domesticate plants and animals and, not incidentally, to propagate disease.

The animals that gave these Old World farmers milk, eggs, meat, and hides also passed on bacteria and viruses and helminthic parasites that flourished in the new environment, which humans were creating for them. Unlike hunter-gatherers who were always on the move, sedentary farmers stayed put to pass those pathogens back and forth among themselves through fouled water supplies, mounting human garbage, and filthy housing that harbored insects, rodents, and other assorted pests adept at spreading illness. Moreover, no sooner did one group develop immunities to local ailments than human migration and trade brought them into contact with another group and new diseases, or new and deadly strains of old diseases.

The later construction of cities also saw the construction of a near perfect pathogenic paradise to provide a last crucial step in the immunologic tempering of Old World peoples. Crowded together as they were, spitting, coughing, and breathing on one another, surrounded by the excrement of humans and animals alike to contaminate all they consumed with the aid of swarms of flies buzzing about, the city peoples were natural targets for epidemic disease. But their growing numbers meant that diseases once epidemic soon became endemic and thus became childhood diseases to be endured as a kind of a rite of passage that would ensure immunity against them as adults.

By extreme contrast, New World populations experienced very little of this sort of immunologic preparation. Rather, their pioneering ancestors had left home before the Old World Neolithic Revolution had begun. Thus, they came without animals with whom to share diseases, while those humans who were sick or weak would have been summarily weeded out by the hardship and cold inflicted on them in their passage to Alaska. The result was that the salubrious environment of the Americas remained relatively disease-free despite human invasion.

One says "relatively," because by 1492 a New World Neolithic Revolution had been under way for some time. Many had settled into sedentary agriculture, some animals had been domesticated, and some complex civilizations such as the Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs had long before constructed large cities. Thus, some kinds of tuberculosis had developed, at least among the city dwellers, and they were tor mented by ailments that derived from their water and food such as intestinal parasites and hepatitis. In addition, pinta seems to have been endemic among those in warmer climates whose dress was sufficiently scanty to permit ready skin-to-skin transmission. Whether they had venereal syphilis has long been a matter of dispute, with one of the reasons for that dispute being that pinta would have provided some cross-immunity against syphilis.

There is little question, however, that the New World Indians were "virgin soil" peoples for the host of diseases about to descend on them from Eurasian and African Old Worlds. In the words of Alfred Crosby (1986), "They seem to have been without any experience with such Old World maladies as smallpox, measles, diphtheria, tracoma, whooping cough, chicken pox, bubonic plague, malaria, typhoid fever, cholera, yellow fever, dengue fever, scarlet fever, amebic dysentery, influenza and a number of helminthic infestations."

The diet of the Indians of the hemisphere, in contrast, was apparently considerably more varied than their diseases. In the Caribbean, the principal nutriment of those engaged in sedentary agriculture came from manioc (yucca), which they grew in cultivated fields and processed into a bread, which the Spaniards called "cassava." Corn was not the important staple that it was elsewhere in the Americas, but it did supplement some West Indian diets as did white and sweet potatoes, beans, pumpkins, and peanuts. With no domesticated animals save for a kind of dog (sometimes eaten), animal protein was served up mostly in the form of fish along with certain reptiles and insects.

Fishing, however, appears to have been more a leisurely activity than an industry, and it would seem that animal protein played a fairly minor role in the diet. This essentially vegetable diet based largely on manioc, which is notorious for its lack of important nutrients, coupled with the Spanish observation that the Indians ate very sparingly, suggests that they probably suffered from some nutritional deficiencies, and these, in combination with the Indians' lack of disease immunities, would have rendered them even less able to ward off the Old World illnesses about to arrive.

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