Tag Archives: disease

Bring out your dead

490-574

Something major happened to Earth’s atmosphere in 535. We have reports from around the world of the sun being darkened or blotted out for more than a year, and evidence from tree rings and ice cores of an extreme cold spell. The culprit might have been dust thrown into the atmosphere by volcano or a comet. This on its own must have been bad news for the world’s population. But even more consequential was what happened starting seven years later. In 542, bubonic plague made an appearance in the Egyptian port of Pelusium, and rapidly spread around the Mediterranean, eventually reaching much of western Europe and Persia. (China seems to have gotten off more lightly.) It’s possible the epidemic had its origin among rodents in the east African Great Lakes region: disturbances to these populations after 535 may have contributed to the spread of plague, either up the Nile valley, or to trading towns on the Indian Ocean. Recent genetic evidence has confirmed that plague bacteria from this period are almost identical to those from the later, better known Black Death in the late Middle Ages. The plague struck repeatedly around west Eurasia for the next 200 years, before disappearing. The death toll must have been many tens of millions.

Major movements of peoples would follow the plague in the sixth and seventh centuries. The Byzantine reconquest of most of the western Roman Empire, under Justinian, came undone as a new wave of Germanic barbarians, the Lombards, occupied Italy. The Anglo-Saxons expanded from the east of England to occupy most of present-day England. Slavs moved south to occupy most of the Balkans. And, most consequentially, Arabs under the banner of Islam occupied most of the Middle East and North Africa.

Plagues and peoples

206-305

Every day on Logarithmic History we cover an interval 5.46% shorter than the preceding day. From covering the first 754 million years after the Big Bang on January 1, we’re down to one century worth of history today.

And it’s a bad century for both Rome and China. Rome goes through an economic crisis, with a huge currency devaluation. Political life goes to hell too. From 235-284 there are 20 Emperors; 18 of them die violently. The Roman Empire experiences multiple, destructive invasions by barbarians. Previously under the Pax Romana, most of the cities of the Empire, including Rome, had been unwalled; now there is a spate of wall-building. The empire recovers toward the end of the century, but in a more heavily militarized and authoritarian form. And in China the Han dynasty disappears entirely after 220, to be replaced by three kingdoms of barbarian origin.

This coincidence of catastrophes may be more than just bad luck. Put it this way: If we look at the Big Picture, going way back on our calendar, and turning for a moment from human history to the evolution of life, we can summarize biological evolution since the Cambrian as:

but …

  • Now and then, a physical catastrophe punctuates the history of life, causing mass extinctions, from which living things slowly recover.

Returning to human history, we can summarize social evolution since the adoption of agriculture as:

  • A process of escalation, in which conflicts between rival groups (matrilineal and patrilineal kin groups, empires, and – we will see – major religions) are drivers of increasing social complexity …

but…

  • Now and then, a biological catastrophe – in the form of an epidemic of some new disease – punctuates human history, causing major population losses, and often political and social collapse as well (i.e. the “germs” in Guns, Germs and Steel).

One such catastrophe contributed to the collapse of New World societies in the face of Old World diseases after 1492. But the Old World too must have had its own earlier catastrophes as the great killer diseases – the diseases of civilization that need a minimum population to keep going – established themselves.

Epidemic disease may have made a major contribution to the fall of Rome and of Han China. Rome suffered two massive epidemics, one from 165-180, another from 251-266. It’s plausible (and some day geneticsts will tell us whether it’s true or not) that these epidemics represent the arrival of smallpox and measles in the West. There is also evidence from the current distribution of tuberculosis strains that the expansion of the Roman Empire, and trade across borders, helped to spread this disease. And we’ll run into bubonic plague in a few days time (Saturday, October 13). There may be a similar story to tell about China, also stricken by epidemics at this time. The opening of the Silk Road and of trade across the Indian Ocean allowed precious goods and new ideas to travel between civilizations. It also opened the way for lethal microorganisms.

In addition to “Guns, Germs and Steel,” a classic book here is William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples. For the Roman empire, more up-to-date, and with a wealth of information, is The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire.

Putting’ on the Ritz

173-164 thousand years ago.

It’s fancy dress day on Logarithmic History. Between 170 and 80 thousand years ago, people started wearing clothes. We know this from recent genetic studies showing that sometime during that period, probably closer to 170 kya, pubic lice and body (=clothing) lice diverged into two separate species. This is before the major exodus of modern humans from Africa, so it may mean clothing was not just about protection from high latitude winters. Or else Neanderthals or Denisovans were wearing clothes, and we got body lice from them. (There’s an even earlier split, three million years ago, between head lice and pubic lice, that probably means human ancestors had lost their fur. And there’s another story about the ancestors of East Asians picking up a different strain of head lice from non-sapiens humans that we may cover later.)

Lice are not just disgusting, but dangerous. On later dates, we’ll have occasion to see how louse-borne diseases like typhus have affected the course of history. But for now let’s forget about lice, and celebrate clothing, with Irving Berlin’s song about fancy duds, “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” covered below by a Moscow flashmob.

Also relevant to the video is Merlin Donald’s book Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition arguing that dance is part of a mimetic mode of culture that came before language. And Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on dancing in history and prehistory Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. is worth a look.

Antecessor rising

932-882 thousand years ago

A common way of demeaning another group is to call them cannibals. Roman pagans sometimes accused early Christians of cannibalizing infants during their secret ceremonies (a horror-show misreporting of the Christian Mass?). Later on, medieval Christians sometimes accused Jews of murdering Christian infants and mixing their blood into Passover matzohs. In response to such libels, anthropologists have sometimes swung to the opposite extreme, occasionally even denying that cannibalism (other than emergency survival cannibalism) was ever an established practice. But there is no serious doubt that human populations have sometimes practiced cannibalism, sometimes in the very recent past. In 1961, for example, Michael Rockefeller, traveling in search of tribal art, was killed and eaten by a group on the coast of New Guinea. Cannibalism can be unhealthy. For example handling and eating uncooked brains was responsible for the spread of kuru, a  gruesome prion disease, among the Fore of New Guinea. Human populations harbor genes that protect against prion diseases; this might be telling us that cannibalism was common among our ancestors.

At the Grand Dolina site in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain, the fragmentary remains of 6 people, mostly children, were discovered mixed in with animal bones and stone tools. Animal and human remains were treated the same. In both cases, cut marks show that flesh was cut from the bones. There’s no evidence that the human remains received any specially respectful treatment. Cannibalism is the most plausible explanation.

The researchers involved have proposed a new species name, Homo antecessor, for these and some other early European finds, although not everybody buys this. Whether we recognize them as a new species or not, these guys were probably an offshoot of Homo erectus, but not ancestral to later European groups, like Neanderthals.

Pox

Contact between the Old World and the New was a disaster for the latter. Conquest, mass killing, and enslavement were part of the story, but even more important was the introduction of a whole slew of epidemic diseases – measles, tetanus, typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, influenza, pneumonia, whooping cough, dysentery, and smallpox.

The flow of diseases wasn’t entirely one way. In Europe, syphilis is first recorded  in Naples, in 1495. It almost certainly came from the Americas, brought back with Columbus’s crew. Columbus himself may have been an early victim. In the Americas, syphilis may have been spread largely through skin contact, but the Old World version was mostly sexually transmitted. The disease initially showed itself in spectacular, gruesome boils and skin lesions, and killed quickly, but eventually evolved to a more slowly progressing version that left victims alive for decades while gradually destroying their circulatory and nervous systems, often ending in insanity.

syphilis

Deborah Hayden’s book Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis is a popular overview of the subject. Part of the book is given over to identifying likely cases in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of course retrospective diagnosis is difficult, a matter of probabilities, not certainties, but Hayden argues that there is good evidence for syphilis for each of the following:

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Franz Schubert
  • Jane Austen*
  • Robert Schumann
  • Charles Baudelaire
  • Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln
  • Gustave Flaubert
  • Guy de Maupassant
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen)
  • James Joyce
  • Adolf Hitler **

* Just kidding

** He reportedly tested negative for syphilis on the Wassermann test, but Hayden notes that the test isn’t very reliable for the later stages of the disease.

After the plague

1370-1405

The establishment of the Mongol khanate resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people (40 million is a common guess). There was some recovery in population once the empire was in place, and new opportunities opened up for trade across the Eurasian steppe. But, just as with the earlier trade involving Rome, China, and the Indian Ocean,, there were also new opportunities for microbes to spread. The Black Death probably killed even more of the world’s population than the Mongols. Western Europe, spared Mongol invasion, lost perhaps a third of its population to the plague in the fifteenth century.

In China, the plague probably struck Mongols even worse than Chinese, and coincided with the overthrow of Mongol rule and establishment of a native dynasty. The new dynasty, the Ming, was more authoritarian than the native Sung dynasty that preceded Mongol rule. The Sung state got most of its revenues from taxes on trade, internal and external, and was solicitous of mercantile interests. The Ming returned to the more traditional practice of getting most of its revenues from taxing the peasantry; it returned as well to the traditional Confucian distrust of merchants. State patriarchy in China had earlier resisted the disruptive influence of ascetic religion; now it resisted the disruptive influence of mercantile wealth.

In Eastern Europe, two states did well during this period: the Ottoman sultanate and Poland. The Ottomans expanded into both Anatolia and the Balkans. And Poland, which had been defeated, but not subjugated, by the Mongols, mostly avoided the plague somehow. It would go on to occupy a huge chunk of Eastern Europe. But below the level of states and empires, something else was going on. Aristocracies in Eastern Europe responded to the loss of population by intensifying serfdom, binding peasants ever more firmly to their estates. Eventually the “second serfdom” east of the Elbe would be far more intense than the first serfdom of the medieval West had ever been.

In Western Europe by contrast, the loss of population in the Black Death helped to end serfdom. At first, European aristocrats, like their eastern counterparts, tried to prevent workers from taking advantage of the law of supply and demand. The Statute of Laborers in England (1349-51) complained that

The servants, having no regard … but to their ease and singular covetousness, do withdraw themselves from serving great men and others, unless they have livery and wages double or treble of what they were wont to take … to the great damage of the great men and impoverishment of all the commonalty.

The Statute forbade servants and small-holders from taking higher wages. But these efforts largely collapsed by the end of the century, partly thanks to the economic and political clout of West European cities, which had no stake in seeing peasants tied to their lords. Aristocrats would continue to hang onto their lands and rents, but serfdom largely disappeared.

Bring out your dead

489-574

Something major happened to Earth’s atmosphere in 535. We have reports from around the world of the sun being darkened or blotted out for more than a year, and evidence from tree rings and ice cores of an extreme cold spell. The culprit might have been dust thrown into the atmosphere by volcano or a comet. This on its own must have been bad news for the world’s population. But even more consequential was what happened starting seven years later. In 542, bubonic plague made an appearance in the Egyptian port of Pelusium, and rapidly spread around the Mediterranean, eventually reaching much of western Europe and Persia. (China seems to have gotten off more lightly.) It’s possible the epidemic had its origin among rodents in the east African Great Lakes region: disturbances to these populations after 535 may have contributed to the spread of plague, either up the Nile valley, or to trading towns on the Indian Ocean. Recent genetic evidence has confirmed that plague bacteria from this period are almost identical to those from the later, better known Black Death in the late Middle Ages. The plague struck repeatedly around west Eurasia for the next 200 years, before disappearing. The death toll must have been many tens of millions.

Major movements of peoples would follow the plague in the sixth and seventh centuries. The Byzantine reconquest of most of the western Roman Empire, under Justinian, came undone as a new wave of Germanic barbarians, the Lombards, occupied Italy. The Anglo-Saxons expanded from the east of England to occupy most of present-day England. Slavs moved south to occupy most of the Balkans. And, most consequentially, Arabs under the banner of Islam occupied most of the Middle East and North Africa.