The lecture challenges the common claim that Native American communities were decimated after 1492 because they lived in “Virgin Soils” that were distinct from those in the Old World. Comparing the European transition from Paleolithic hunting and gathering with Native American subsistence strategies before and after 1492, it offers a new way of understanding the link between biology, ecology, and history. Synthesizing the latest work in the science of nutrition, immunity, and evolutionary genetics with cutting edge scholarship on the history of indigenous North America, it highlights a fundamental model of human demographic destruction: Human populations have been able to recover from mass epidemics within a century, whatever their genetic heritage. They fail to recover from epidemics when their ability to hunt, gather, and farm nutritionally dense plants and animals is diminished by war, colonization, and cultural destruction. The history of Native America before and after 1492 clearly shows that biological immunity is contingent on historical context; not least in relation to the protection or destruction of long-evolved nutritional building blocks that underlie human immunity.
The lecture provides a framework to approach contemporary health dilemmas, both inside and outside Native America. Many developed nations now face a medical crisis: so-called “diseases of civilization” have been linked to an evolutionary mismatch between our ancient genetic heritage and our present social, nutritional, and ecological environments. The disastrous European intervention in Native American life after 1492 brought about a similar – though of course far more destructive – mismatch between biological needs and societal context. The curtailment of nutritional diversity is related to declining immunity in the face of infectious disease, to diminishing fertility, and to the increasing prevalence of metabolic syndromes. The lecture thus intervenes in a series of historical and contemporary debates that now extend beyond Native America – while noting the specific destruction wrought on indigenous nutritional systems after 1492.
Gideon Mailer is an Associate Professor in Early American History at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and Chair of the History Program in the Department of History, Political Science, and International Studies. He was an elected Fellow at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge and an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge until 2012. He received his BA, MA, and PhD from the University of Cambridge. He has published books and essays in the fields of early American and Atlantic history. He has devised new curriculum models to synthesize the study of history with evolutionary medicine.is principal investigator on a number of first-in-human immunotherapy clinical trials in pediatric and adult patients with brain cancer. His research is funded by the NIH, Department of Defense, and several private brain tumor foundations.