Category Archives: book reviews

Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America


Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America. Edited by Catherine Cameron, Paul Kelton and Alan Swedlund. University of Arizona Press, 2015.

With the number of emerging infectious diseases climbing and new revelations about plague’s past, this book is a timely caution to the rhetoric surrounding so-called virgin soil epidemics. This book is the publication of an interdisciplinary conference held to discuss the causes of Native American depopulation hosted by the Amerind Foundation. Essays by David Jones, George Milner, Clark Spenser Larsen, Debra Martin, Gerardo Gutiérrez, Alan Swedlund, Catherine Cameron, Paul Kelton, Katheleen Hull, and James Brooks are included. Most of these essays are case studies in depopulation of specific areas.

David Jones opens the book with a discussion of the rhetoric surrounding so-called virgin soil epidemics that are credited with being the primary cause of native depopulation. Admitting the influence of his mentor evolutionary biologist Stephan J Gould, Jones favors social and contingent causes for depopulation over biological determinism. Perhaps the influential role that Gould played in my own formation as a biologist makes me sympathetic to Jones’ argument, but I can certainly live with that. Genetic determinism, in my opinion, is the easy way out to explain what can not be yet understood. His argument against the sweeping rhetoric of ‘virgin soil epidemics’ is, I think, very effective.

Milner’s chapter tackles the tricky problem of the pre-contact population collapse of the Mississippian culture centered at the mid-continent site of Cahokia, near St. Louis. This had been the largest and most (archaeologically) complex native culture in North America but it collapsed so entirely that the mid-continent was still sparsely populated when Europeans arrived a couple of centuries later. Medieval Cahokia had been more populous than  contemporary London. The example of Cahokia must give us pause for assuming that unrecorded demographic collapses that lack signs of massive destruction must be due to epidemics.

Larsen, Martin, Gutiérrez, and Hull cover the effect of the Spanish mission system in Florida, the Pueblo of the Southwest,  Mexico, and California respectively. Structural violence was seen throughout the Spanish mission system from hard, forced labor. Larsen discusses the changed how changed landscapes and lifestyles make natives more susceptible to infection. He sees a dramatic rise in cribra orbitalis/porotic hyperostosis as a sign of iron deficiency when it may actually be malaria. Wet Florida would have been susceptible to endemic malaria and a reservoir for it to spread through the southeast. Martin looks at the bioarchaeological evidence for a ‘creeping genocide’ in the peublos of the south west. Sporatic massacres of pueblo communities was used to enforce compliance by the wider culture. Cultural resilience was also stressed to the breaking point by a prolonged period of drought and environmental deterioration in the southwest that left them with marginal nutritional sufficiency. In this stressed environment, smallpox spread widely among the pueblo communities. Epidemics were part of a set of practices used to destroy or reorient native culture to make it acceptible, and more importantly controllable for the Spanish. Gutiérrez focuses on the methods and effects of identity erasure on demographics. The caste system that developed was very systematic “virtuous cycle”  with the goal of eliminating native identiy and indeed native (and African) ‘blood’ while maximizing Spanish identity and ‘blood’.

Chapters by Swedlund,  Cameron, and Kelton  examine tribes that dealt more closely with the English colonies and early American states. Swedlund looks at the great smallpox epidemic of 1633-34 beyond coastal New England up into the Connecticutt River valley. Cameron reviews the demographic effects of warfare and captive taking had on the Southeast, the northern Pays d’en Haunt (Great Lakes region), and the Southwest tribes. Colonial politics and trade caused more intertribal warfare than warfare directly with European colonists. Kelton writes about the disastrous experiences of the Cherokee with warfare, famine, and disease during the American Revolutionary War.

On of the overarching problems is the difficulty in determining population size before contact and then for the first couple centuries of the colonial period. Problematically, in the past abandoned villages have been assumed to be extinct due to disease rather than simply relocation or the movement of refugees to other tribes. The reality is that many areas that are fertile with Old World methods and domestic livestock were very difficult to make productive with native resources.

Over arching themes that I noticed which point toward other factors than just “germs” causing depopulation:

  1.  Use of starvation as an intentional weapon accomplished by burning fields and disrupting the agricultural cycle.
  2. Selective taking of women of reproductive age as captives/slaves causing a gender imbalance that prevented populations from rebounding.
  3. Selling captives to slavers rather than incorporating them into the tribe as pre-contact tribes often did to bolster their numbers and replace their dead. Sales were often to repay debts for European trade goods, especially weapons and ammunition.
  4.  Use of tribes as proxy militias by European powers to create intertribal warfare and recruitment of tribes by the British during the American revolution and war of 1812. Set up an adversarial relationship with the young American nation.
 In effect, I think the process they are all searching for is a syndemic that combined epidemics, nutritional deficiencies, systemic violence, slavery, and forced assimilation. Unfortunately they didn’t really consult the syndemic literature.

One of the things I took away from this collection is an appreciation for how long it takes to develop a fully agricultural culture. Many Native American groups were still in transition. Lacking domestic animals other than the dog, they were very vulnerable to climate and social disorder disrupting their agricultural cycle and yield. Some tribes adopted domestic animals from Europeans quickly. Colonists were greatly alarmed at how quickly the Cherokee adopted raising hogs and European crops, bringing them nutritional stability. Of course, horses are were adopted so well by natives that its hard for many of us today to even think of Native Americans without them.  The idea that domestic animals were worth the effort may have been what was missing most, rather than a lack of animals capable of being domesticated.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested the dynamics of depopulation, “dark ages”, and most importantly for comparison to other “virgin soil” epidemic situations. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that other renowned virgin soil epidemics like the first and second plague pandemics occurred in times of ecological and social stress in addition to the epidemic in question. By opening the explanations for Native American depopulation up to other causes than disease,  it also opens up views into colonial life that even contemporaries tried to ignore. Wether their demise to disease was believed by contemporaries to be divine will or by modern historians as biological determinism, it has diverted attention away from the very human causes of depopulation and in some cases genocide.

Autumn Reading

Autumn 15

While autumn is not officially over yet, December always seems like winter to me so here is my reading review from autumn.
This season I’m introducing a book review rating system. On my scale, an average book would get three scopes; a good book, four; and only the extraordinary book gets five scopes. I probably will not rate translations because I don’t feel qualified to evaluate them.


Paul Kelton. Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophes in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715. University of Arizona Press, 2007.   microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)

Catherine Cameron, Paul Kelton, and Alan Swedlund, eds. Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America. U of Arizona Press, 2015. microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)

Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre: Chronicle, Part III edited by Withold Witakowski, Liverpool University Press, 1997. (includes the largest section of John of Ephesus’ Church History/History of the Plague)

Zlata Blažina Tomic and Vesna Blažina  Expelling the Plague: The Health Office and the Implementation of Quarantine in Dubrovnik, 1377-1533. McGill-Queens University Press, 2015.microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)

Dorothy Crawford. Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History. Oxford University Press, 2007. microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)

Susan Mattern. The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire. Oxford University Press, 2013. microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)microscope23 (1)


Meier, D. (2004). Man and environment in the marsh area of Schleswig–Holstein from Roman until late Medieval times. Quaternary International, 112(1), 55–69.


Stanley, J.-D., Bernasconi, M. P., & Jorstad, T. F. (2008). Pelusium, an Ancient Port Fortress on Egypt’s Nile Delta Coast: Its Evolving Environmental Setting from Foundation to Demise. Journal of Coastal Research, 242, 451–462.

Schats, R. (2015). Malaise and mosquitos: osteoarchaeological evidence for malaria in the medieval Netherlands. Analecta Praehistoricaleidensia, 45, 133–140.

MacMaster, T. J. (2015). “Not With a Bang?” The Economics of Trade and the End of Byzantine North Africa. In M. Di Rodi, P. Frankopan, M. Lau, & C. Franchi (Eds.), Landscapes of Power: Selected Papers From the XV Oxford University Byzantine Society International Graduate Conference (pp. 73–91).

SHWARTZ, L. (2013). Gargano Comes to Rome: Castel Sant“Angelo”s Historical Origins. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 64(03), 453–475. (Blogged about here: St Michael, the Plague and Castel Sant’ Angelo,  in 2012 after his Kalamazoo talk. I just found in in print much as I remembered in the blog post.)

Rasmussen, S., Allentoft, M. E., Nielsen, K., Orlando, L., Sikora, M., Sjögren, K.-G., et al. (2015). Early Divergent Strains of Yersinia pestis in Eurasia 5,000 Years Ago. Cell, 163(3), 571–582. (See the previous post on this blog!)

Sun, Y.-C., Jarrett, C. O., Bosio, C. F., & Hinnebusch, B. J. (2014). Retracing the Evolutionary Path that Led to Flea-Borne Transmission of Yersinia pestis. Cell Host and Microbe, 15(5), 578–586.

McCormick, M. (2015). Tracking mass death during the fall of Rome’s empire (I). Journal of Roman Archaeology, 28, 325–357.

Daniel Melleno. (2014) North Sea Networks: Trade and Communication from the Seventh to the Tenth Century. Comitatus. 45:65-90.

microscope23 (1)Icon made by Freepik from

An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections

Unnatural HistoryRon Barrett and George Armelagos. An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections. Oxford University Press, 2013 (e-book)

This is not a traditional review. In keeping with this blog’s function as my shared file cabinet, this post will be something like a précis /notes with a few of  my comments in italics.

Medical anthropologists Ron Barrett and George Aremelagos argue that there have been common factors in the disease ecology that has governed all three main epidemiological transitions in human health. They argue that there is nothing fundamentally new about the driving factors of the current ecology of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. In all three transitions, human factors have created the ecology for acute infectious disease to thrive.

Concept: “syndemics: interactions between multiple diseases that exacerbate the negative effects of one or more diseases” (p. 10). Examples: co-infections of HIV, and combinations of infection and chronic respiratory disease (asthma etc).

Metaphor: “seed and soil” where the microbe is the seed and the ecology is the soil. Historically used by physicians who accepted Germ theory but practiced environmental medicine (sanitarians) especially in the gap between the beginning of germ theory and the availability of antibiotics. I really like this metaphor; it still works today. 

Prehistoric baseline

  • Important as our evolutionary context, first 100,000 years of human history. (that’s about 90% of total human history). At its peak only 8 million people globally; small, nomadic groups  rarely in contact.
  • Temporary shelter and carried little with them to carry vectors (or fomites?). Hunter gatherers maintained near zero population growth. More diverse nutrition but could not support large groups. Little hierarchy within the group so few inequalities (at least not consistently detectable in the osteological record.)
  • Nutrition is closely tied to immunological competence.  Protein deficiencies reduces competence to the level of AIDS patients. Nomads can move to find better nutrition, avoiding ‘famine foods’. Diets higher in lean meats and  fiber, but low in carbohydrates.
  • Too small to support acute epidemics (ran out of hosts too soon) but at an increased risk for parasites. Heirloom parasites like pin worms and lice; souvenir parasites picked up while foraging like ticks and tapeworms. Mostly chronic infections that could remain with the nomads until they could be transmitted to new groups.  New zoonoses that can be passed human to human contracted from hunting would ‘flash out’ in a small group. Groups too small for diseases like measles, smallpox or influenza.

First epidemiological transition – Agricultural revolution

  • The first transition comes with people settle down and form villages.  Settlement and agriculture allow populations to grow large enough to support acute epidemic disease and animal domestication brings humans in prolonged contact with animals sparking some important zoonotic diseases.
  • They note that agriculture and settlement begin in multiple parts of the world independently but not at the same time. It took about 9000 years for 99.99 % of the population to shift to farming and domestic animals as their primary nutrition source. Once the shift to agriculture comes, there is no going back.  They debate which comes first, settlement or agriculture, but they note that in the end for heath it doesn’t matter. (The length of time here has important implications for the incomplete nature of the second transition.)
  • Decrease in overall health seen in all societies that shifted to agriculture. Correlations between more/better grave goods and better health; ie. social inequity was bad for health as early as the neolithic. Very high childhood mortalities bring the overall lifespan down considerably. Settlement increased densities of humans and newly domestic animals making conditions ripe for the first acute epidemics and zoonotic transfers. Most zoonotic transfers in this period come from domestic animals.
  •  Nutrition suffers with settlement. Reliance on a monoculture makes them vulnerable to bad years and nutritional deficiencies of essential nutrients not found in the monoculture.  There is a general reduction in stature, increase in signs of anemia, and increase in osteological signs of infection. Examples: Nubia and Dickson Mounds, IL, USA. Correlation of age with skeletal pathologies shows that is health declines are not due to the ‘osteological paradox’ (more pathologies in stronger people because they survive what would have killed others).

Second epidemiological transition – Industrial revolution

  • Transition marked by decreasing deaths due to infectious disease and an increase in chronic diseases. Increasing life expectancy due in large part to decreasing childhood mortality. Total human population soars.
  • Germ theory vs. Sanitation reform: Germ theory is associated with quarantine tied to power of the church and state. (??) Sanitary reform has greater success in controlling diseases like cholera and food-bourne diseases. Sanitary reformers focused on building infrastructure, improving living conditions and personal hygiene. “Germ theorists had begun a revolution in medical thinking, but in the realm of medical practice, they could do little more than agree with existing recommendations of the miasmists.” “with the exception of a few vaccines and surgical asepsis, Germ Theory offered little…until well into the 20th century”. Not surprising that germ theory didn’t make much difference until antibiotics came along. 
  • McKeown Thesis: “identifies nutrition as the primary determinant in the decline of infection-related mortality” Improved nutrition best explains increasing population growth in different countries in a short time period; improved agricultural methods and transport of food. Urban growth with industrialization increased crowding and decreasing sanitation leaving nutrition as the cause for decreasing infectious disease. Correlation between increasing height and decreasing infant mortality, increasing maternal height (indicating good nutrition) increased indicators of infant health so that improving nutrition improved health from generation to generation.
  • McKeown’s critics: error rates in bills of mortality obscure particularly respiratory infections in the elderly. They also believe that he underestimates the significance of smallpox vaccination in decreasing death rates. Greatest criticism is that McKeown places too much emphasis on nutrition over non-medicinal factors.
  • “Comparing the Agricultural Revolution with the Industrial Revolution, we find the same human determinants of infectious disease: a) subsistence, via its affects on nutritional status and immunity; b) settlement, via its effects on population densisty, living conditions, and sanitation; and c) social organization, via distributions of these resources and their differences within and between groups…. As such, the First and Second Transition could be seen as two sides of the same epidemiological coin with human actions as the basic currency.” (p. 61)
  • Second transition is incomplete in many countries. Only seven nations began the transition before 1850 and 17 more by 1900 with most transitioning after World War II. “The ‘low mortality club’ consisted of richer nations whose life expectancies converged at around 75 years old at the turn of the millennium. The ‘high mortality club’ consisted of poorer nations whose life expectancies converged at the same time around 50 years of age.” (p. 66)  The poorer nations have relied more heavily on vaccines and drugs as a buffer against living conditions to achieve the transition. Drug resistant pathogens removes this buffer for poorer nations. High childhood moralities continued in the poorer countries for the same reasons as in the first transition.
  • Chronic diseases make people susceptible to different infections. example: diabetes + TB, infectious diseases causing cancer: HPV, H. pylori, EBV (lymphoma).
  • Developed world vulnerable to “reimportation epidemics” from poorer nations with agents like smallpox (prior to eradication). Increased speed of air travel allows people to travel between high and low disease areas during the incubation period through entry ports without detection.

Third epidemiological transition (current)

  • Convergence of chronic and infectious diseases in a global human disease ecology marks the Third epidemiological transition.
  • Human health determinants remain subsistence, settlement and social organization.
  • 335 novel pathogens discovered 1940-2004, mostly after 1980, 60% of which are zoonoses and 70% of those come from wild animals. With long exposure to zoonoses from domestic animals it makes sense for most new pathogens today to come from wild animals; also due to encroachment and habitat destruction.
  • Challenges of new zoonotic pathogens: establishing animal to human  transmission, then human to human transmission, and finally human population to population. Chatter is a pathogen trying to establishing the animal to human transmission but not yet getting the human to human. Chatter is often viral but can be other microbes as well. Viral chatter is a transitional moment in evolution; purely biological for the pathogen but primarily cultural for humans (human practices that help the pathogen make the transition by our behavior).
  • Attenuation hypothesis: evolutionary interests favor microbes not killing their hosts too soon. Works for the first transition when population groups were widely scattered.
  • Virulence hypothesis: Ewald’s concluded that evolution favors virulence for pathogens with multiple hosts. (ex. plague). We can’t take either hypothesis too far as both have contradicting examples.
  • We need to shift from just looking for drugs to combat pathogens and spend more time on factors of human ecology.
  • An interesting chapter on antibiotics and evolution.

Concluding focus: To dispel three myths

  1. Emerging infections are a new phenomenon. They are not. This is why the emerging infections page on this blog begins with emergences in Antiquity / Prehistoric. 
  2. Emerging and re-emerging infections are a natural or spontaneous phenomena. We have a part to play in microbial co-evolution. Epidemiological transitions are intended to balance microbiology in understanding these infections.
  3. Determinants of disease are different today than in the past. They are not.

“The purpose of this Unnatural History is to reveal the macroscopic determinants of human infection just as the germ theorists once revealed their microscopic determinants…. our approach has been one of both seed and soil, acknowledging the importance of pathogens while stressing their evolution in response to human activities: the ways we feed ourselves, the ways we populate and live together, and the ways we relate to each other for better or worse.” (p. 111)


I’m not an anthropologist so I’m not really going to look at this like an anthropologist.  Demographics shifts are what they are, facts. The underlying factors / variables  – subsistence (nutrition), settlement (living conditions/infrastructure), and social inequalities –are the same under all three transitions. As these conditions vary, so do the demographics. This is very useful; a reminder of the importance of human disease ecology. The Unnatural History of the title is reference to human manipulation of the environment creating the conditions for emerging infections. Epidemics are not ‘acts of god’, or simply a natural process that we are helpless to stop. We play our part. Often drugs are the easy way out of the problem, far easier and cheaper than building infrastructure or improving living conditions. 

The paradigm of epidemiological transitions is an anthropological tool. I don’t really have a practical use for labeling ‘transitions’.  As both the second and third transitions are incomplete, they are not of much use to me as concepts. The shortness of these transitions makes me wonder if we are not really looking at just one transition since ca. 1800 that is yet incomplete. It is more important to me to look at these underlying variables and their outcomes at specific times and places. From my point of view, taking generalizations about epidemiological transitions as more than a guide for research or a teaching paradigm can be problematic.

This is a short book and yet I probably highlighted more than any other e-book that I’ve read. The focus here is more theory than details. Some of their plague information is a little out of date but it doesn’t really detract from their main points. It’s a valuable resource for thinking about microbe-human co-evolution.