Epidemics, Xenophobia and the “Other” Fear Factor

2 thoughts on “Epidemics, Xenophobia and the “Other” Fear Factor”

  1. The typical fluid and temporary nature of cooperative groups seen in modern hunter-gatherers makes it very difficult to find any clear cut “in” and “out” groups below the level of a whole language or dialect. Furthermore, the maintenance of mutual cordiality can be elevated to a kind of sacred value between such groups. Taboos on inter-group violence and conflict make sense among most hunter-gatherers: it is stupid to alienate people who might tell you a new joke, show you a new way of making an arrow, or lighting a fire. It is especially stupid if they are neighbors, and might, someday, during a catastrophic drought, offer you refuge, on the unspoken assumption that you would do likewise.

    So is the defusing of any potential threat offered to an “out-group” always a sacred value?

    Breaking the taboo invites a world of hurt that can last for many generations. There is evidence that this happened between hunter-gatherer groups over the past 3000 years in the Canadian Arctic, for example. Inuit who occupied the region above the arctic circle clearly never established (or everywhere ruptured the) peace between themselves and the hunter-gatherers of the boreal forest, such as the Cree and the Dene. This illustrates the dangers inherent in breaking the taboos: many innovations that could have been shared, like kayaks and oil lamps, never were, and knowledge about the plants and animals, the geography and ecology of the boreal forests, had limited spread among the Inuit. Genetic exchanges were also very limited. One arctic people, the original Dorset Paleo-Indian culture, went extinct, when it is possible that more extensive and open networking might have saved them.

    It is puzzling why this might be, but modern examples of human groups hostile to outsiders offer a clue: fear of infection. For people with no idea of microbes, much less, an idea of immunity, but for whom early encounters led to disease outbreaks, rejection of any future contact would represent a precaution – regardless of whether this was through fear that the outsiders represented a spiritual or a physical contagion. In colder climates, there would be fewer disease vectors, and much less chance of developing immunity to many of the common infectious diseases found in warmer climates.

    So it is conceivable that arctic hunter-gatherers tended to be wary of strangers outside their normal historical contacts. If, indeed, contact with the more southern peoples represented a microbial danger during the recent occupation of Arctic North America by Siberian Inuit, a few incidents of illness early on, attributed to such contact, might further explain the on-going hostility between them and the Boreal peoples. Furthermore it could help to clarify why there was no evidence of cultural or genetic exchange between the them and the Dorset culture.

    For most of the rest of world’s hunter-gatherers, however, diplomacy and networking would be a more common strategy. Besides continuing flow of genes, information, small gifts, innovations, music, and other arts, – and microbes, such networks could provide fallback refuges for populations that expanded into areas subject to periodic droughts, floods and harsher winters. In fact, elsewhere, the maintenance of networks of interaction among hunter-gatherers WOULD TEND TO CREATE GRADIENTS OF MUTUAL MICROBIAL SHARING.

    Immunity to new diseases is much more likely to be built up between peoples sharing gifts and remedies and genes, reducing the chances that any one group could become isolated and thus vulnerable to catastrophic die-off.

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