Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What can archaeology do to help fight pandemic diseases?

John J. Shea

“Not much,” might be one’s first reaction to this essay’s title question. Archaeologists are not exactly first responders. We are, if anything, last responders. And yet surprisingly, archaeology is not as odd a source of insights as it might seem. Archaeology offers a 3.5 million-year-long scientific record of human and earlier hominin problem-solving. As we near the midpoint of 2020, this “dumpster fire” of a year, one wonders what the remote past can tell us about ways to cope with pandemic diseases and similar challenges.
Archaeologists study human behavior indirectly, by analyzing material traces of that behavior. Those traces range from stone tools and fractured bones littered around Africa millions of years ago to solid waste decomposing in modern-day landfills. If pandemic diseases or other disasters changed past human behavior, then there is an archaeological record for solutions to those challenges whether they were successful or not.

Seeking archaeological insights into solutions to modern-day problems in the is not the same thing as “appeal to antiquity,” –a logical fallacy in which one implies virtue to something because people did in ancient times. People did all kinds of stupid, evil, and maladaptive things in the past, such as chattel slavery, hanging “witches”, and torching libraries. They also did some wise things that worked out well, such as making tools, inventing writing, and creating democracy. The trick is learning how to tell the difference between what worked and what did not, and to identify those properties of successful solutions that we can use.

Pandemic diseases in the past.
How did earlier humans cope with pandemic diseases? For most of prehistory, most humans probably did not have to worry about them at all. Highly communicable and lethal diseases ran their course at local or regional scales before they could spread along rivers or footpaths through the wilderness. Things changed after 5000 years ago, when cities rose and trade networks crossing mountains, rivers, and oceans connected far-flung urban populations to one another. High local human population densities offered lethal microbes target-rich environments as well as the means by which to spread rapidly throughout and between larger geographic regions. Records of nearly all ancient urban civilizations write of epidemic outbreaks of various plagues, including cholera, bubonic plague, typhoid, and other ailments. Ancient non-urban societies insulated themselves from these diseases by variations on quarantine, by restricting who came into their towns and villages. 16th-18th century Native American groups tried doing this when smallpox and other European diseases swept through their settlements. Today, in 2020, we are rediscovering this ancestral solution to pandemic disease. Unfortunately, we are doing so in a world of evolutionarily unprecedented high human population density.

Cities, mega-cities, and future pandemics
Today, increasing numbers of humans live in cities. Formerly small cities are merging into mega-cities. These megacities increase pandemic diseases’ impact, but they also support the hospitals, universities, and research centers that will find a cure for covid-19 and the next pandemic. Cities are also political, economic and administrative centers. This ensures that when we find those cures, they will be mass-produced and distributed widely. Still, one has to remember that many of our mega-cities, London and New York City for example, are where they are because of 16th-20th century maritime trade networks. Many coastal mega-cities also lie in the path of rising sea levels. Living in cities is not going to get easier as time goes on.
Megacities are not going anywhere anytime soon, and none of these remarks should be read as a call to abandon them. But if modern societies want to recover some measure of the immunities from pandemic diseases prehistoric and pre-urban humans enjoyed, then we need to disperse our industries and populations into smaller urban centers that can be more rapidly and effectively isolated from one another when the next pandemic arises. We also need to develop the shorter and more stable supply chains that citizens of ancient cities, town, and villages enjoyed. 21st century humans need alternatives to 16th-20th century cities.

Conclusion: Disaster studies and survival archaeology.
Archaeologists acquire many of our ideas about the past by studying how humans behave today. When it comes to surviving pandemic diseases and other potential disasters, however, archaeologists suffer a crucial lack of information. The kinds of disasters that attract archaeologists’ attention are largely geological disasters, volcanos, floods, earthquakes and the like (“summer movie blockbuster disasters”). We have spent considerably less attention on quieter disasters, famines, refugee flight, and pandemic diseases. Archaeology attracts people who can focus narrowly on minute details and complex problems. These are also qualities one wants in people involved in solving major challenges to human health and safety. Uniting these two seemingly separate fields into a “survival archaeology” will create a productive partnership that can benefit all of humanity in our struggle with pandemic diseases.

Prehistoric Stone Tools of Eastern Africa By John J. Shea
Prehistoric Stone Tools of Eastern Africa By John J. Shea

Stone Tools in Human Evolution By John J. Shea
Stone Tools in Human Evolution By John J. Shea
Stone Tools in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Near East By John J. Shea
Stone Tools in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Near East By John J. Shea

About The Author

John J. Shea

John J. Shea is Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York. Born in Hamilton, Massachusetts, he earned higher degrees from Boston University (BA 1982, Archaeo...

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