NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: Health and Nutrition in Pre-Columbian America

Richard H. Steckel

NBER Working Paper No. 10299
Issued in February 2004
NBER Program(s):   DAE

Lack of evidence has been the major obstacle to understanding trends and differences in human welfare over the millennia. This paper explains and applies methods that are obscure to most academics and essentially unknown to the general public. A millennial perspective is best obtained from skeletal remains, which depict not only childhood health conditions but also processes of degeneration that accompany aging and strenuous physical effort. Compiled into an index of health, data from 23 localities as part of a large collaborative project on the Western Hemisphere reveal diverse health conditions for the pre-Columbian population. For reasons not yet understood populations moved over time into less healthy ecological environments. The analysis has implications for understanding environmental determinants of health, the pattern of European conquest, pre-contact population size, investigating human adaptation to climate change, and discovering prime movers of very long-term economic growth.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w10299

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