LIFE HISTORIES AND THE ARC OF TIME

One may ask why it is important for anthropologists to document patterns of health and disease for ancient Americans, especially when understanding health today is a more immediate and compelling concern. Why not concentrate efforts on people living today because the need is so great? One reason has already been alluded to: often the ultimate cause of poor health and early death is not proximally located; rather, it is an “upstream” manifestation of a situation displaced temporally and/or spatially (McKinlay and McKinlay 1974). The methods used here help to extract information about the past that encompasses environmental, cultural, and biological factors. Not only can disease and poor health be located in time and space, but the interrelatedness of ecological, behavioral, and biological variables can also be examined.

On one level, so-called diseases of civilization, such as cancer, tuberculosis, arthritis, and osteoporosis, have been shown to exist in groups that predate “civilization” by hundreds of years, thus suggesting that factors other than those relating to industrialization can put people at risk. On another level, anthropologists have been able to document the remarkable and deadly persistence of undernutrition, common infections, anemia, and other preventable diseases over thousands of years in some geographic locations.

Finally, it has only been through the archaeological record that anthropologists and historians have come to understand how changes over time in environment, political and economic structure, subsistence and diet, and settlement patterns can and do have profound effects on population structure and rates of morbidity and mortality. Although archaeological reconstruction can infer many aspects of subsistence and diet, it is largely circumstantial evidence and only indirectly is suggestive of health status. Issues of disease and nutritional adequacy and the impact of diet on population health and longevity cannot be fully realized without the human biological evidence.

 
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