In this forum we are looking at the evidence of diseases that were transferred across the tropical oceans before 1492 C.E.


Postby jerrid1 » Thu Jan 20, 2011 11:55 pm

By Professor Emeritus Carl L. Johannessen

There is much archaeological and other evidence for the early diffusion and exchange of culture and cultural traits between the Old World and the Americas. This includes radio-carbon dated finds in tombs, caves and other archaeological excavations. It includes artistic representations of plants in temple complexes that do not originate on the continent where the plant is originally native (dating to the late B.C.E. and early C.E.). Linguistic similarities across cultures and on other continents sometimes carry similar names for plants. Among the most interesting and persuasive data available in this interdisciplinary field of research is the presence of disease micro-organisms and pests in populations not living near where the diseases and parasites originated. Moreover, it is crucial to notice that several of the diseases are vector-borne therefore the disease requires a middle step prior to re-infecting a human subject.

The vector-borne nature of some of these diseases undermines the opposing argument that all these diseases traveled across the continents during the earliest, Bering Straits, walking migrations of humans into the Americas. Our data also strengthens the argument for certain disease introductions to the Americas far earlier than traditionally thought. The argument that all these diseases and pests, 19 at current count, came to the Americas during the various migrations across the Bering land bridge does not square with the archaeological and locational evidence found by reputable archaeologists and epidemiologists worldwide. Following is a synopsis of the dated archaeological information available for 7 of these species. The complete data on these and the other species can be found in our book (Sorenson and Johannessen 2008, in press). You can obtain the two volume book: Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas across the Oceans, an Annotated Bibliography, written by John L. Sorenson and Martin H. Raish, Provo, Research Press as a basis for your further research

A further resource is John L. Sorenson’s and my book World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492, published this April by iUniverse.

Ancylostoma duodenale – a hookworm.
A Tiahuanaco, Peruvian mummy dating ca. 900 CE has A. duodenale remains in the intestine. Also in another mummy that was surveyed is another hookworm, Necator americanum. Both hookworms reached the Americas in pre-Columbian times from Asia, Indonesia, or Polynesia via voyagers. Cold temperature on the Bering Strait route would have prevented the continuance of infection to the next generation of people walking into America, so that migrants would arrive in sub-tropical America, free from hookworms. If both A. duodenale and Necator americanum are found in America this indicates that they came by sea from those countries in Asia where A. duodenale and N. americanum were infecting the population millennia ago, i.e., Japan, China , Southeast Asia, and many of the tropical islands. Hookworm eggs are also found in pre-European mummified bodies and coprolites in Peru. Such eggs develop in one phase of their life cycle that occurs only in warm soil. Transpacific migrants from Southern Asia by sea must be one component of the ancient American population. Coprolites from coastal Peru show several intestinal parasites: tapeworm 2700 BCE, pinworm approximately 2300 BCE, whipworm by 2700 BCE, and roundworm. Also, a hookworm (Ancylostoma duodenale) was obtained from a mummy 7,000 years ago.

Necator americanus - hookworm
Human coprolites were found in a cave site in Minas Gerais State, Brazil, that date between 1490 BCE and 1570 BCE. Eggs of two types of ancylostomids were identified in the same mummy (one of which is Necator). The most extensive region of the world with people infected with hookworm is in Southeast Asia and we presume that the hookworm started in that region from great antiquity. An example of the minimum age of the contact with Southeast Asia is available with evidence of Nector americanus (along with the whipworm) that dated to 7,320 -+-80 YBP at Pedra Furada, Brazil.

Ascaris lumbricoides - the large intestinal roundworm
The Egyptian mummy PUM II, dating to about 170 BCE or the Ptolemaic Period, had in its intestinal tissue an ovum agreed by specialists probably to be Ascaris. Some stated definitely that it was A. lumbricoides. The species had already been reported to be present in many Old World locations in antiquity, e.g., at Winchester, England. This report indicates that this parasite was transferred to the New World before 1492 C.E.. In Pre-Columbian Brazil, it has been discovered that, although A. lumbricoides was rarer than it was in Europe, it was definitely present. In a recent paper, Daniela Leles and her associates showed that they could obtain evidence of the DNA of roundworm in human coprolites in the Pre-Columbian dated Brazilian archaeological digs, even when the worm’s eggs were not in the human coprolites from its dispersed DNA. . They indicate that the roundworm has been present in Brazil and Chile since 6000 BCE.

Piedreaia hortai - the fungus that causes piedra (negra), a disease of the hair
This fungal disease, commonly called piedra negra but which is called Piedra ascospórica, is especially characteristic of inner South America, although found very rarely in North America. He cites such limited literature as exists. “Separated from South America by the two great ocean barriers,” this disease is in both hemispheres; [for] it is also in Southeast Asia—Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia. “In all these regions of Oceania and of Southeast Asia, Piedra ascospórica presents exactly the same clinical, epidemiological, and parasitological characteristics with which it appears on the American continent.” He gives names for the disease in Guaraní and Tupí languages (lowland Amazonian). In previous works, he has concluded, and has justified the conclusion, that this disease was introduced to the Americas by pre-Columbian migrations by natives of Oceania. He argues that P. hortai is missing in those parts of northern Asia and in North America that would have been involved in transmission by any walking migration across the Bering Strait that might have brought this disease. None of the disease existed in Europe or Africa. Because it was widely distributed in South America, among many language groups, it must have arrived long ago.

T-cell lymphotropic (retro) virus (HTLV-I)
The route by which the human T cell lymphotropic (retro) virus (HTLV-I) reached the Americas has been much discussed. Seroepidemiologic, genetic, virologic, molecular, anthropological, archaeological, and oceanographic data lead the authors to conclude that this virus could have arrived not only from Africa (as previously suggested, via colonial-era slaves), but also from Kyushu Island in Japan more than 5000 years ago through direct voyaging. The subjects of this study, the Noanama people, were Amerindians from the high mountains of southwestern Colombia; their geographical and social isolation reduces the chance of any contact with the slaves of African origin brought to Colombia by the Spaniards.
A comparative study made some years ago utilized thirteen genetic markers to distinguish racial groups of the world. The study yielded one very interesting result—the Noanama had very close relations with Samoans and Japanese—especially Ainu. This result suggests that HTLV-I was introduced to South America from the Far East thousands of years ago by a route other than the Bering Strait. Furthermore, recent genetic studies on native South Americans showed that their ancestors possessed genetic markers related to the histo-compatibility leucocyte antigen (HLA) like the Japanese of Kyushu. A direct voyaging contact from Japan to Colombia would explain this relationship, because populations of North and Central America are totally without the HLA markers. At a mitochondrial DNA level, study of the deletion 9 bp in the human genome has shown it to be Asiatic, especially being found in North American Indians and Polynesians. Yet, it is not present in the (Jomon-derived) Ainu, and the 9 bp deletion is also absent among the Noanama (as well as on the coasts of Chile and Peru a thousand years earlier). This suggests an intrusion of people from Japan. León, de León, and Ariza cite the archaeological findings of Meggers et al. for the intrusive Valdivia culture of Ecuador as confirming their position of contact with Japanese island’s peoples.
Finally, modern Japanese investigators have voyaged across the Pacific by the North Pacific route to Colombia, which Errazurriz and Alvarado suppose was used anciently, and these experimental sailors/researchers used vessels similar to those of prehistoric times. This demonstrates that it was possible to make such a voyage.

Trichuris trichiura - whipworm
Evidence was found in a cave site in Minas Gerais State, Brazil, dated between 1490 BCE and 1570 BCE, consisting of eggs of T. trichiura and Necator americanus. The same parasites (i.e., Trichuris trichiura and Necator americanus), found at Unai, Minas Gerais have now been identified in human coprolites from Boqueirão do Sitio da Pedra Furada, Piawi, Brazil, in a stratum radiocarbon-dated to 7320±80 BP. [This Sitio has hearth charcoals stratified below the oldest record of C14 dating, which is about 45,000 years.].

Yersinia pestis - the plague bacillus
Although human plague is more commonly zoonotic in origin, it can be transmitted between people, with or without the agency of vector fleas, and humans can act as a reservoir of the disease and result in tremendous die offs. Two forms are differentiated ecologically: sylvatic, the original form experienced in Europe's urban population. Sylvatic type, of course, is present in wild rodents and their fleas. The same plague bacillus can produce three different forms of plague, depending on the mode of transmission and climate: (1) bubonic, (2) pneumonic, and (3) septicemic. Pneumonic plague is more common in dry temperate zones and as a result of contact with infected wild rodents (usually contracted while skinning or otherwise handling the animal, or from a flea bite). Highly contagious, it localizes in the lungs and is rapidly fatal without medical treatment. It spreads rapidly to other humans via the respiratory route. Human fleas, Pulex irritans, can spread bubonic plague without the involvement of rats, and Xenopsylla cheopis (the flea of Rattus rattus), also can readily infests humans. Over 200 species of rodent, as well as other mammals in Western America, have carried plague. Most domesticated and commensal rodents do. Many believe that sylvatic plague is indigenous in the Americas. Several lines of evidence seem to support this conclusion. The most compelling evidence in favor of pre-Columbian plague is the existence of several extensive sylvatic foci in both North and South America, with the largest being in western North America in ground squirrels and other rodents. It is also focused in eastern Siberia and western Canada. This distribution suggests that plague is an ancient and widely distributed disease of rodents perhaps diffused across the Bering Strait. There are three subspecies, Y. p. orientalis, endemic in India, Burma, and South China; Y. p. antiqua, carried by rodents in Central Asia and Africa; and Y. p. mediaevalis, of the Black Death and Europe and today found only in West Africa. If New World sylvatic plague were an indigenous disease of the rodents of this hemisphere, one would expect it to be the same strain found on the other side of the Bering Strait, Y. p. antiqua, the parent of the others. However, American plague is the same as the urban strain found in Southeast Asian seaports, Y. p. orientalis. This has suggested to traditionalists, who have believed that no contact was possible across the oceans, that plague was carried by ship to the Americas from Southeast Asia during the last pandemic. This is considered to have been in China in 1855. They claim that only later was plague found in wild rodents in America, and it seems to have spread rapidly into wild reservoirs from the original marine foci in seaports. [This presumes an unbelievable rate of spread to a wide variety of rodents (up to 200 mammal species) over a wide geographical range. The presence of Y. p. orientalis in the Americas can be explained much more economically by supposing its arrival on a pre-1492 C.E. voyage from Southeast Asia long ago, allowing time for a normal rate of dispersion.] If it ever becomes certain that there were rats from the Pacific or from northwestern Europe in the region of central Mexico, then we should probably accept the possibility that the die-offs of the Maya were due to the plague and not accept that the soils in Central America became so poor as to cause starvation on a sufficiently massive scale in the Ninth and tenth Century C.E. to cause their collapse. Europe may have received the plague from American high civilizations by sailors visiting the Mediterranean 10-13th centuries.

After reading the evidence presented above, it becomes difficult to deny that there was regular contact between the Old World and the Americas. Nineteen disease-causing organisms are present in the Americas from the Old World prior to 1492 C.E. voyages . None of the diseases were transferred during the early migrations across the Bering Sea. The few that could have been transferred in this way are more easily explained through transoceanic contact between the cultures of the Old World and the Americas. Again, as with the archaeological remains of American plants, which were transported before 1492 C.E., tropical sailors are the likely source in the transporting ships and rafts.
So far I have found no direct link with the Scandanavian’s diseases and the Amerinds in the northern latitudes. The consequence of these and other discoveries that we document here is that the paradigm has now shifted and those who wish to maintain “no contact existed between the Old World cultures and those in Americas” have to demonstrate that fact; they cannot prove it simply by making the claim. This allows major discoveries to be made in the Pre-1492 Trans-oceanic Diffusion Theory. The entire history of the American high civilizations had access to and gave input cultures in the Old World especially in the tropical world around the earth.
Your classes in Cultural and Historical Geography will be tremendously stimulated by being able to solve research problems on their own. I predict that if you have a course in which you are able to allow students to actually discover something, the field of geography will become tremendously more significant to them and you will get caught in the same passion.


Allison, Marvin J., Daniel Mendoza, and A. Pezzia. 1973. “Documentation of a case of tuberculosis in pre-Columbian America,” American Review of Respiratory Disease 107: 985–91.
Darling, Samuel T. 1920. “Observations on the geographical and ethnological distribution of hookworms,” Parasitology 12 (3): 217–33.
Ferreira, Luiz Fernando, Adauto Araújo, and Ulisses Eugenio Confalonieri. 1982. “Os parasitos do homem antigo,” Ciência Hoje 1 (3 Nov.-Dez.): 63–67.
Verano, John W. 1991. “Prehistoric disease and demography in the Andes,” in Disease and Demography in the Americas, John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker, eds., 15–24. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Ferreira, Luiz Fernando, Adauto Araújo, Ulisses Eugenio Confalonieri, M. Chame, and B. Ribeiro Filho. 1988. “Encontro de ovos de ancilostomideos em coprólitos humanos datados de 7,230±80 BP no estado de Piauí, Brazil,” in Paleoparasitologia no Brasil, L. Fernando Ferreira, A. Araújo, and U. Confalonieri, eds., 37–40. Rio de Janeiro: Programa de Educação Pública, Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública.
Cockburn, Aidan, Robin A. Barraco, William H. Peck, and Theodore A. Reyman. 1998. “A classic mummy: PUM II,” in Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures, 2nd ed., A. Cockburn, E. Cockburn, and T. A. Reyman, eds., 69–90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lels, Daniela, et al. Feb. 2008. “Molecular paleoparasitological diagnosis of Ascaris sp. From coprolites: new scenery of ascariasis in pre-columbian South America times.” Memorias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz. ... en&nrm=iso.
León, Fidias E., Amparo A. de León, and Adriana Ariza. 1996. “El viaje transpacífico del virus de la leucemia de células T del adulto tipo I,” Acta Neurológica Colombiana 10 (3 Júl.–Sept.), 132–36.
Errazurriz, J., and C. Alvarado. 1993. “An archaeologic bridge over the Pacific: transpacific currents and Tumaco-La Tolita transpacific crossing.” Audiovisual presentation, Tokyo, NHK(TV), July 29.
Patterson, K. David. 1993b. “Strongyloidiasis,” in The Cambridge World History of Human Disease, Kenneth F. Kiple, ed., 1016. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sorenson, John and Carl Johannessen. 2009. World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492. iUniverse, Inc.
Jerrid M. Wolflick
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Postby davelu » Fri Jan 21, 2011 6:47 pm

this one got my attention -- i am just an amateur here but i have been following the introduction of the "black plague" into america prior to Columbus -- this would mean the exploration of N.A. by the Irish, Scottish, Northern European and of course the Vikings -- i can't find any work on the diseases, etc the vikings would have left -- by this i mean books to purchase -- for night time reading

will follow up later
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Postby carlj » Fri Feb 04, 2011 12:35 pm

There are very few books written about the subject of disease transfer, just as there are few books written about any Pre-Columbian biological transfer. However, my colleague and I did write a book that was published in 2009. It is a general overview of biological transfers before 1492. We look at plants, animals, and diseases. Although it is a brief overview, it includes a 50+ page bibliography you can use for further research. The book is World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 and is available at amazon.
Professor Emeritus Carl L. Johannessen
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