integer on 3 Nov 2000 03:05:20 -0000

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The native peoples of North America have survived two traumatic
events during the past two millennia. One we all know about: the arrival
of Europeans with their freight of diseases and their ability to destroy
whole ways of life almost overnight. The other, earlier event is less
obvious: the transition from a foraging way of life to one based on
grains, which happened more recently in North America than the
agricultural revolutions in other parts of the world. Both events, as
Clark Spencer Larsen demonstrates in this fascinating and well-written
book, left many traces on the skeletons of the peoples who lived
through them.

Larsen and his many collaborators have examined burial sites spanning
these two traumatic periods. Burials in Stillwater Marsh, Nevada, were
recently uncovered by flooding in the region and cover the time from
1300 bc to ad 1300. Isotopic analysis by Margaret Schoeninger shows
that the people living there ate plants gathered from the marsh and
animals that they hunted. They were strong and healthy, with few signs
of vitamin deficiency and virtually no tooth decay. Nonetheless, their
teeth show signs of periodic famines.

The story was very different with pre-Columbian people living on St Catherine's Island, Georgia. Skeletons dated from 400
bc to ad 1450 show a transition to ever-higher proportions of corn in the diet, accompanied by a huge increase in tooth decay
and changes in the bones that indicate a more sedentary life. Jaws became smaller with the introduction of corn mush into
the diet, and teeth were more crowded. The teeth were slightly reduced in size during this period. Famine was less common
than at Stillwater, but in spite of their more reliable food supply there is little evidence that these people lived any longer than
those in Nevada.

The second great trauma had even more dramatic effects. Larsen found that burials from Spanish Florida spanning the
arrival of Europeans show the impact of introduced diseases. The greater number of Retzius (growth) lines in the teeth
shows that severe childhood illness rocketed. Signs of infection in the long bones, virtually unknown before the arrival of
the Europeans, are found in 60% of the burials from ad 1600. Unremitting toil in the fields, as the native people were
effectively turned into slaves by their European masters, left marks in the shapes of their bones. The strength of the bones,
particularly in women, was reduced.

The lives of all these people, both before and after the traumatic transitions that they went through, were nasty, brutish and
short. Larsen shows, however, that they were nasty, brutish and short in very different ways. Skeletal changes over a span
of centuries or even decades were pronounced. We think of the agricultural revolution as an unqualified benefit to our
species, but Larsen demonstrates that it also had substantial negative aspects. Overall health was reduced by both the
introduction of agriculture and the arrival of the Europeans.

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