Archeology shows how ancient African societies managed pandemics

Often, a pandemic occurs that dramatically changes human society. The Black Death (1347 – 1351) was one; another was the Spanish flu of 1918. Now there is COVID-19.

Archaeologists have long studied disease in past populations. To do so, they consider a wide range of evidence: the layout of the settlement, burials, funerary remains, and human skeletons.

For example, because of archaeologists we know that the harmful impact of the epidemic caused the abandonment of the settlements at Akrokrowa in Ghana in the early 14th century AD. Some 76 infant burial sites at an abandoned settlement that is now part of the Mapungubwe World Heritage site in South Africa’s Limpopo Valley suggest that a pandemic struck the people who lived there after 1000 AD.

Archaeological and historical insights also reveal some of the strategies adopted by societies to deal with pandemics. These included burning settlements as a disinfectant and moving settlements to new locations. Social distance was practiced by dispersing settlements. The results of the archaeologists at Mwenezi in southern Zimbabwe also show that it is taboo to touch or disturb the remains of the dead, for fear of transmitting diseases in this way. In the late 1960s, some members of an archaeological dig excavating the floors of 13th-century houses in Phalaborwa, South Africa, refused to continue working after they found burials they believed to be sacred. They were also concerned that the burials were linked to an outbreak of disease.

Social distance and isolation are watchwords during the COVID-19 pandemic. From archaeology, we know that the same practices were a vital part of managing pandemics in historic African societies. In present-day Zimbabwe, the Shona people in the 17th and 18th centuries isolated those suffering from infectious diseases – such as leprosy – in temporary residential structures. This meant that few people could touch the sick. In some cases, corpses were burned to avoid infection.

People tend to relax and change priorities when the disasters are over. Data collected by archaeologists, showing how indigenous information systems helped ancient African societies deal with shocks of disease and pandemics, can help remind policymakers of different ways to prepare modern societies for the same issues.

Social distancing and isolation

Research at the early urban settlement of K2, part of the Mapungubwe World Heritage site, has shed significant light on ancient pandemics.

The inhabitants of K2 (dating back to between AD1000 and AD1200) thrived on crop agriculture, cattle rearing, metalworking, hunting and gathering food from the forest. They had well-developed local and regional economies that contributed to international exchange networks with the Indian Ocean rim. East African Swahili towns acted as conduits.

Archaeological work at K2 revealed an unusually high number of burials (94), of which 76 were of infants in the 0-4 age group. This represented a mortality rate of 5%. The evidence from the site shows that the settlement was suddenly abandoned around the same time as these burials. That means that a pandemic prompted the community’s decision to move to another settlement.

Moving to another region of Africa, archaeological work at early urban settlements in central and southern Ghana has identified the impact of pandemics in places such as Akrokrowa (AD950 – 1300) and Asikuma-Odoben-Brakwa in central Ghana.

These settlements, like others in the Birim Valley in southern Ghana, were bounded by complex systems of trenches and earth banks. Evidence shows that after several hundred years of continuous and stable occupation, settlements were suddenly abandoned. The period of abandonment seems to coincide with the devastation of the Black Death in Europe.

Post-pandemic, houses were not rebuilt; and no debris accumulated from daily activities. Instead, the disturbed communities went to live in other places. Because there are no signs of long-term effects – in the form of prolonged periods of hardship, deaths or drastic socio-economic or political changes – archaeologists believe that these communities were able to manage and adapt to the pandemic.

Analysis of archaeological evidence shows that these ancient African communities adopted different strategies to manage pandemics. These include burning settlements as a disinfectant before re-occupying them or moving dwellings to new locations. African indigenous knowledge systems show that burning down settlements or forests was an established way of managing disease.

The layout of the settlements was also important. In areas such as Zimbabwe and parts of Mozambique, for example, settlements are spread out to accommodate one or two families. This allowed people to stay far apart – but not too far apart for everyday care, support and collaboration. Although social cohesion was the glue that held society together, social extension was built in, in a supportive way. Communities knew that outbreaks could not be predicted but that they could be predicted, so they built their settlements in a dispersed manner to plan ahead.

These behaviors were also complemented by diversified diets that included fruits, roots, and other things that provided nutrients and strengthened the immune system.

The past and future of the pandemic in Africa

Pandemics had multiple long-term implications in these communities. Perhaps the most important thing is that people organized themselves in ways that made it easier to live with disease, manage it and at the same time stick to the basics like good hygiene, sanitation and environmental control. Pandemics did not end life: populations made decisions and choices about living with them.

Some of these lessons could be applied to COVID-19, guiding decisions and choices to cushion vulnerable people from the pandemic while allowing economic activity and other aspects of life to continue. As evidence from the past shows, social behavior is the first line of defense against pandemics: this needs to be considered when planning the latest post-pandemic future.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you reliable facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Shadreck Chirikure, University of Oxford

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Shadreck Chirikure receives funding from the National Research Foundation of South Africa, the University of Cape Town, the Royal Society, the British Academy and the University of Oxford. He is Professor of Archeology at the University of Cape Town and holds a British Academy World Professorship in the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford.

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