The mainstream headlines are disquieting:
Seals helped Europeans wipe out Native Americans
Sea lions, not Columbus, may be to blame for many Native American tuberculosis deaths
Seals not Columbus brought TB to Americas
Seals, not the Santa Maria, first brought tuberculosis to America
To find the real story, you need to search beyond headlines.
Read the original report in the 2014 October 23 issue of the journal, Nature, the source for the misleading headlines.
What grabbed headlines is the speculation that seals and sea lions likely carried a form of tuberculosis to the New World, long before outsiders unpacked their army of diseases.
The researchers found that DNA from the disease—extracted in three ancient skeletons unearthed in Peru—match the DNA from seals and sea lions.
Whether our ancestors died from TB or tolerated its symptoms throughout their lives is uncertain.
Researchers speculate that the early strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis found in the Americas are zoonotic diseases, meaning, humans can acquire them not just by contact with seals but also by eating pinnipeds.
And they speculate that the same form of TB infected North Americans before settlers arrived.
The scope of the disease thousands of years ago is unknown, but the strain was much less deadly than the one shared by Europeans. And that’s what gets lost in the news stories.
In fact, the TB strain carried by settlers to the New World was so robust it dispatched the sea lion strain altogether.
What you don’t read in the popular press and social media sites is that indigenous people likely tolerated TB spread by seals: not everyone affected succumbed. Still: only three skeletons have been examined.
They brought a particularly nasty strain to the Americas, one that affected everyone: indigenous people in particular.
In fact, TB was the leading cause of death in the US and Europe until antibiotics helped stem the tide of the disease.
In short, news writers got the story wrong: early strains of TB carried by marine animals fail to take settlers off the hook for unleashing disease on North Americans.
Some headlines are stunningly misleading, implying that American Indians were already disease-ridden when colonizers arrived.
Headline writers readily shift blame to seals and sea lions, excusing Columbus.
But read the science: virulent tubercular strains were indeed brought by Europeans, along with smallpox, diphtheria, measles, influenza and whopping cough, wiping out some indigenous communities wholesale.
While statistics of 18th and 19th Century morbidity and mortality are difficult to discern in Indian Country, the devastating effects of disease are well-documented, according to historian Russell Thornton.
In some cases diseases wiped out as many as 90 percent of an indigenous community since Europeans arrived, Thornton notes.
Lesson here is to read with vigilance.
The science writers failed to capture the truth kernels in the research: researchers reported in Nature that marine mammals likely carried a form of TB to the Americas thousands of years ago.
They never suggested this finding changes the role of settlers in bringing decimating diseases to the Americas.
Blog #26 for Native American Heritage Month
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