Re: diseases and immunity

Domingo Martinez-Castilla (
Mon, 01 Jul 96 16:04:11 GMT

(Pre-script: I am still choked with a combination of that "life" thingy
and the terribly bad written (and this is an ESL person talking!) and
ferociously long piece by Mr Deitiker. I am not telling Mr Deitiker
that he should write better, but he should pay attention to the rule
that, in any language, the longer your piece is, the better written it
has to be. Otherwise, nobody will read it or understand it, and you may
get the very wrong impression that you got the last word. Said that, I
have some comments to make.)

The following comments refer not only to Mr Deitiker megathing, but to
some others as well.

1. What happened about that "paleolithic" etimology? I am not trying to
re-open a small wound, but to call attention on that kind of
carelessscholarship. The fact that Mr Deitiker has not commented on his
opinion on that matter makes many of his other points very suspect.
Also, most of his piece(s) lean heavily on the opinions of his, more
than anything else.

2. Example on above (also applies to some of the more recent unsigned
posts coming from the address where did the
"fact" that mortality was lower among mesoamericans came from? Mr
Deitiker repeats it like a well-known fact, but I have never seen a
comment on that in the literature. It sounds like the most extensive
works on the subject have not even been prused. I strongly recommend

Denevan, William M. (editor)
The Native population of the Americas in 1492 (2nd edition)
University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wis.
353 pp

which is still the canonical work (most papers, from all sides on the
matter, are from 1976; the average estimates by Denevan are not very

Verano, John W. and Douglas H. Ubelaker (editors)
Disease and demography in the Americas .
Washington : Smithsonian Institution Press
294 p.

which is the proceedings of very informative symposium on the topic,
including very heavily-oriented articles, and some others leaning
towards the historical side. Contains 26 articles by an array of people
like Verano's on the Andes, Larsen et al. on La Florida, Powell's on the
US's Southeast. Saunders's on the Iroquians, and also pieces by Dobyns
and Crosby themselves. Very informative, and not only on epidemic
diseases. (I have the whole table of contents in the computer, if
anybody wants to see it)

There is also an article in a book:

Newson, Linda A.
"The Demographic Collapse of Native Peoples of the Americas, 1492-1650"
Bray, Warwick (editor)
The Meeting of Two Worlds. Europe and the Americas 1492-1650.
Oxford University Press, New York, 1993
pp. 247-2880

which I found very informative, especially for the very extensive
bibliography she has included.

3. By the way, what happened in the Andes? Everybody is talking about
Mesoamerica. I suspect that, de facto, the Andes have been included
there, right? More good scholarship, I guess... ;-) More seriously,
note that the difference between older Mesoamerican civilizations
(mainly Mayan and Aztec, if some of you want to know) and Andean ones
(especially Inca and Wari-Tiwanaku), was somewhat similar to that
between Greek and Roman. The first were heavily dependent on
city-states, some of them very large and tending to become hegemonic,
while the latter were close to the "empire" paradigm, which collapsed,
among many other things, due to over-extension. That difference is very
important to understand the spread of epidemics at the time of contact.
Note that while in Mexico/Tenochtitlan there was a very high density of
population, in the Andes there were one or more huge armies roaming from
Northern Ecuador to Southern Chile, which makes a very good vector of
disease (cf Crusades, mongol invasions, etc.)

4. Where did that "fact" about Palermo being the biggest city of Europe
come from? All my sources point to Paris and Constantinople for the
time of contact.

5. Mr Deitiker mentioned that crops were domesticated in Eurasia 2000
years before than in the Americas. Could you please include any source
for that? I am extremely interested in the topic, for I believe that
crop variability is one of the "tracers" to the development of
civilization. You may want to know that the development of agriculture
in a mountainous region (the Andes) is very different from that on truly
tropical weather (Mayan Mesoamerica), and both differ significantly from
the grass-based agriculture of Eurasia. What are the implications of
that? Fodder for thought... :-)

6. Mr Deitiker also raises the issue of time spans as a very important
one, for example when he writes, very matter-of-factly:

>2. At least 2,000 years behind in the domesitication of seeds than the
>best of eurasia, (not unexpected if the variety of HG type foods
>available without neccesity of agriculture) and several thousand years
>behind in the development of animal husbandry. (not unexpected if wild
>food stocks are avialable)

This line of "thought" really drives me nuts. What does "behind" mean
here, please? I demand an answer. There are very clear indications
that agriculture was better developed in the Andes than almost anywhere
else in the world. Seed-per-seed, yield production was higher in the
Andes than anywhere else in the planet (forget about per-acre
measurements in any mountainous region). Crop variety (and thus
potential famine-avoidance) was also extremnely higher, as were number
of domesticates and others. Check any recent (say 2 decades) book on
the subject of the history of crop domesticates. And read any account
of crop domestication, and you will find, among other things, that the
domestication of maize from teosinte has been one of the greatest
examples of human ingenuity in any respect and time. First amendment
nbotwithstanding, could you possibly stop writing about things you do
not know about?

And regarding the domestication of livestock, the word "behind" is also
completely inappropriate. In plants and animals, Mr Deitiker, one does
not domesticate what one wants, but what one can. There are some
animals that lend themselves to very easy domestication (sheep, llamas,
wolves), and others that just refuse to be domesticated (zebras, deer,
vicunas). This does not have anything to do with being ahead or behind.
It never had. Or is it that you do not know much about plant and
animals domestication either? Want some references on that? I will
gladly provide them.

7. Regarding rigid time lines: so Europe can develop from a bunch of
barbarians in 1000 years but nobody in America can do it? Give me a
break! Does Mr Deitiker have any idea of how old are the first
sedentary settlements in America? I challenge him to post his
"knowledge" on that subject.

Last, and this may be my *opinion*, if I may as well indulge on that:
There is clearly a difference in philosophy here. Mr Deitiker (and I
would believe Mr Firl as well, on spite of their differences) seems to
be partial to the strong belief that everything in history is a path
towards "progress", and that indigenous Americans were, mostly, just
backwards and with very bad genetic luck, and that is what did them in.
Some sort of "Darwinism" (poor Darwin!), as somebody noted recently in
this thread, actually suggesting a very convenient mechanism of natural
selection that goes very well along the lines of manifest destiny. I
think that such perception is, of course, very wrong (I did not leave
any room for thinking otherwise, did I? :-]). I suggest, again, reading
something, but this time lighter and better written than most of the
literature: the column "This view of life" by Stephen Jay Gould in the
current (July 96) issue of Natural History. Nice reading on the
competing views of the two greatest French scholars on cave paintings.

My perception is that civilizations do not follow a linear and/or
required path. There were at least five pristine complex civilization
centers in the world, two of them in America (Mesoamerica and the Andes,
the others in the Far East, the Indus Valley and the Mesopotamia). Each
one of them followed very different paths, and progress was measured in
very different ways. And that is just right.

Enough said for the day...



Domingo Martinez-Castilla