The cohabitation of humans and animals led to the first epidemics in ancient times

Youssef Kanjou

Epidemics are a topic of conversation among people all over the world these days. An interesting question is when and how they first occurred in human history.

There is no archaeological and anthropological evidence of epidemics in the time when people started to colonize the Earth. Only much later were there rare signs of it, found by archaeologists in bone remains.

When people were hunting and gathering, they lived in small groups that moved from one place to another. The dog was the only animal that lived right next to them. In this phase, people were healthy because they had a balanced diet, rich in proteins and fiber, but low in carbohydrates and fat. During this period, infectious diseases could hardly be transmitted to distant areas. Because of the spatial separation between human groups, there was no risk of an epidemic.

Anthropologists have identified the first signs of epidemics in the so-called “Neolithic Revolution” in the ninth millennium B.C. when people in the Mesopotamian region began farming and raising livestock. During this important period in human history, important new cultural developments emerged, such as in architecture, the arts, and religion.  Thus, the first villages were settled and large groups of people now lived permanently close to each other.

In addition to the change in diet to agricultural products that caused disease, tamed farm animals now lived side by side with humans. This intense relationship between people themselves on the one hand and with animals on the other led to the emergence of many diseases that people had not previously known. This became clear with the increase in infant mortality: 30% of the population died in infancy. It then became possible for infectious diseases to be transmitted from animals to humans – such as measles, which initially affected cattle, at a very early stage. This was also the beginning of connections between people over long distances, whether through trade, travel, or migration.

However, the only evidence of diseases that affected the bony skeleton, such as the teeth, could be discovered, while diseases of the heart or blood, for example, cannot be identified due to a lack of archaeological evidence.  But from the bone findings, the age at death can be determined. Therefore, by looking at the percentage of people who died at a young age, it is possible to make statements about the state of health of people. Examples of infectious diseases that could affect the skeleton in ancient times are syphilis, tuberculosis, and leprosy. The oldest case of tuberculosis was found in a Syrian archaeological site on the Euphrates River in the Neolithic period around the seventh millennium BC.

About 5,000 years ago, an epidemic wiped out a village in China. Archaeologists discovered skeletons in a burned house. The epidemic seems to have affected all ages, children, teenagers, and middle-aged people. This site is now called Hamin Mangha and is one of the best-preserved prehistoric sites in northeastern China. An archaeological and anthropological study indicates that the epidemic occurred so quickly that there was no time for a proper burial. The settlement did not revive after the epidemic.

It seems that the relations between people and animals as causes of infectious diseases and epidemics have existed since ancient times. Causes today may be modern farming, trade in wild animals, or the escape of viruses from scientific laboratories. There is no end in sight as coexistence becomes more crowded and global. The current Corona epidemic is a new high point in this development.


Photo: From skeletal remains, anthropologists can detect disease in ancient times: Here, a grave containing several individuals from the Early Bronze Age, found at Tall Qaramel, north of Aleppo, Syria.

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