Today when one thinks of the health conditions that they are most likely to encounter within their lifetime, diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or cancer come to mind. These conditions are often described as modern ‘lifestyle diseases’ but there are a host of others that have risen to prominence over the course of human history and traditionally referred to as ‘diseases of civilization’ due to their development as lifestyle practices changed (e.g., settlement and farming styles) and populations became increasingly dense.
Many of these enduring diseases, such as gonorrhea, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis, continue to impact a large proportion of the global population and represent a significant challenge to public health. For example, whooping cough (also known as pertussis) has risen in prominence in the United States in recent years, in part due to vaccination avoidance. For more information about these killers with ancient roots, visit: http://news.discovery.com/human/gonorrhea-plague-ebola-and-others-wont-quit-120810.html.
A recent study published by Emory Anthropologists Amanda Mummert, Emily Esche, Joshua Robinson, and George Armelagos finds that the transition to agriculture did not quickly afford the health benefits commonly assumed.
Following research published in 1984 by Dr. Armelagos and his colleague Dr. Mark Cohen, the team sought to determine whether bioarchaeological evidence uncovered since the mid-1980s pointed towards a trend of increased health after the transition from hunting and gathering to sedentary agricultural practices. By conducting a comprehensive literature review of studies taking a whole-body approach to documenting the health of individuals, the authors concluded that agriculture did not, in fact, improve health immediately, but rather was coupled with increased rates of infectious disease and decreased stature. This research has important implications for our modern food system. “I think it’s important to consider what exactly ‘good health’ means,” Mummert says in an interview wit Carol Clark. “The modernization and commercialization of food may be helping us by providing more calories, but those calories may not be good for us. You need calories to grow bones long, but you need rich nutrients to grow bones strong.”
For more commentary from the authors, visit: http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2011/06/dawn-of-agriculture-took-toll-on-health.html. Their article, “Stature and Robusticity at the Agricultural Transition: Evidence from the Bioarchaeological Record,” is available in the July 2011 issue of the journal Economics & Human Biology, available at: www.elsevier.com/locate/inca/622964.