Monday, March 10, 2008

Starving because of plague   posted by Razib @ 3/10/2008 12:27:00 AM

Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650 is a short and dense little book which summarizes the latest research on the litany of plagues which reduced the population of the New World by 1-2 orders of magnitude within the century after Columbus. 1491 is writerly enough so that the depressing aspect of the topic is at least presented in a manner which blunts the effect of scale of the death. Born to Die, as the title may indicate, makes little attempt at that sort of elegant exposition; just tables after tables of fatality numbers, quotations from eye witnesses to the death, and so on. With that all that said, there was one qualitatively new piece of information that I am now aware of: many people died of starvation, not the disease which had rendered them immobile. Here's what would happen: a disease which most Europeans were immune to because of childhood exposure, think measles, would strike a tribe all at once. Not only might the symptoms be far more grave because of a less robust immune response (many would die), but the whole village or population would manifest simultaneously. This is a problem, a certain number of hours are needed for activities such as grinding maize into corn meal. If only 1/10th of the population is at full strength there are simply too few hands doing too much for those who need to recuperate; basic activities necessary for survival on the margins of the Malthusian trap now go undone. Without corn meal starvation quickly follows, well before the path of the disease leads to either death or recuperation.