The history of civilization is the history of plague


Map of coronavirus outbreaks vs temperature, from Razib’s article, “CoViD-19 and its Weather Dependency”


SARS-CoronaVirus-2, aka SARS-CoV-2, aka Coronavirus, aka Corona Virus Disease, AKA CoViD-19, is only the latest in a long list of pandemics to travel the Silk Road from Asia to Europe (and back again).

The biggest plague in recorded history, often referred to simply as “The Plague,” was the  Black Death or Bubonic Plauge, caused by the yersinia pestis bacterium. Pestis killed over 200 million people, most of those during its famous European Tour between 1347-1353, but was actually still killing millions of people even in the early 20th century. The Third Pandemic, as the most recent outbreak is known, began in Yunnan, China in 1855, killed 10s of millions in China and India, spread to California (yersinia is now actually endemic to the fleas that infest prairie dogs in the American West,) and Africa, and was only declared over in 1960, when casualties dropped below 200 per year.

The bubonic plague ended because we can kill it with penicillin. The plague began in stone-age farming communities near the Black Sea, known as the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture, around 5500-2750BC. This was a lovely region with some of the world’s largest concentrations of humans and animals:

The majority of Cucuteni–Trypillia settlements consisted of high-density, small settlements (spaced 3 to 4 kilometres apart), concentrated mainly in the SiretPrut and Dniester river valleys.[3] During the Middle Trypillia phase (c. 4000 to 3500 BC), populations belonging to the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture built the largest settlements in Neolithic Europe, some of which contained as many as 3,000 structures and were possibly inhabited by 20,000 to 46,000 people.[4][5][6]

The culture thus extended northeast from the Danube river basin around the Iron Gates to the Black Sea and the Dnieper. It encompassed the central Carpathian Mountains as well as the plains, steppe and forest steppe on either side of the range. Its historical core lay around the middle to upper Dniester (the Podolian Upland).[2] During the Atlantic and Subboreal climatic periods in which the culture flourished, Europe was at its warmest and moistest since the end of the last Ice Age, creating favorable conditions for agriculture in this region.

As of 2003, about 3,000 cultural sites have been identified,[7] ranging from small villages to “vast settlements consisting of hundreds of dwellings surrounded by multiple ditches”.[16]

The inhabitants were involved with animal husbandryagriculturefishing and gatheringWheatrye and peas were grown. …

Their domesticated livestock consisted primarily of cattle, but included smaller numbers of pigs, sheep and goats. There is evidence, based on some of the surviving artistic depictions of animals from Cucuteni–Trypillia sites, that the ox was employed as a draft animal.[31]

In short, the Cucuteni-Trypillia are the most important culture you’ve never heard of:

Although this culture’s settlements sometimes grew to become some of the largest on earth at the time (up to 15,000 people), there is no evidence yet discovered of large-scale labor specialization. Their settlements were designed with the houses connecting with one another in long rows that circled around the center of the community. …

Although trade was not likely necessary, archaeological evidence supports the theory that long-distance trade in fact did occur. One of the clearest signs of long-distance trade is the presence of imported flint tools found at Cucuteni-Trypillia settlements.

Indeed, the Cucuteni-Trypillia saltworks located at the brackish spring at LuncaNeamţ County, Romania, may very well be the oldest in the world.[5] There is evidence to indicate that the production of this valuable commodity directly contributed to the rapid growth of the society.[6] This saltworks was so productive that it supplied the needs of the entire region. For this to happen, the salt had to be transported, which may have marked the beginning of a trade network that developed into a more complex system over time.[7]

The Cucuteni-Trypillia people were exporting Miorcani type flint to the west even from their first appearance. The import of flint from Dobruja indicates an interaction with the Gumelniţa-Karanovo culture and Aldeni-Stoicani cultures to the south. Toward the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture’s existence (from roughly 3000 B.C. to 2750 B.C.), copper traded from other societies (mostly from the Gumelniţa-Karanovo culture copper mines of the northeastern Balkan) began to appear throughout the region, and members of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture began to acquire skills necessary to use it to create various items. Along with the raw copper ore, finished copper tools, hunting weapons and other artifacts were also brought in from other cultures.[2] In exchange for the imported copper, the Cucuteni-Trypillia traders would export their finely crafted pottery and the high-quality flint that was to be found in their territory, which have been found in archaeological sites in distant lands.

The Cucuteni-Trypillia farmers lived on the edge of the Eurasian Steppe and interacted with the Yamnaya, nomadic herdsmen otherwise known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans. No one knows exactly why the PIEs decided to go on a rampage (perhaps a drought), but eventually they did, conquering (and probably absorbing) not only the Cucuteni-Trypillia, but also almost all of Europe, Iran, and India.

The important thing about the Cucuteni-Trypillia people is that there were a lot of them, living in close proximity to each other, with their animals.

Humans can live with animals, as the low-population density Mongols have traditionally done, without too much difficulty. Humans can live in enormous cities, like the 200,000 citizens of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, without too many problems (well, other than the cannibalism and human sacrifice). But cram humans and animals together, and you get diseases. Add in trade routes, and you get pandemics.


In the year 1 (there was no year zero, despite what the graph says,) Rome was the capital of an empire with a population of almost 1.5 million people.

Between 169 and 180 AD, the Antonine Plague ravaged Rome, killing 2,000 people a day at its height. The Antonine Plague may have begun a few years earlier in China, but it was definitely brought back from the near east by soldiers returning from campaign. It spread across the Empire, killing approximately 5 million people. We think it was smallpox, but it might have been measles. Epidemiology wasn’t great in those days.

The Plague of Cyprian struck the Roman Empire between 249 and 262 AD; at its height, reports say that it killed 5,000 people a day in Rome. The effects of the plague can be seen clearly in the graph.

In 324, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (now Istanbul), ending Rome’s status as a major city for the next fifteen hundred years.

In 541, Yersinia Pestis made its first major debut with the Plague of Justinian, killing 25-50 million people in the Byzintine and Sasanian Empires. It most likely began in western China, was transported by nomads or merchants across central Eurasia, and then blasted through the civilized world.

Unfortunately, human complexity creates the conditions in which diseases breed.

Even without pandemics, the disease burden of early modern Europe was extremely high: most cities had grown much faster than their ability to dispose of waste and keep their inhabitants clean. The same trade networks that allow for the dispersal of new ideas and technologies (and what are technologies but ideas in action?) allow for the dispersal of pathogens. Indeed, their dispersal patterns are so similar that it is sensible to model ideas and diseases as the same thing, hence our much beloved “memes.”

Unfortunately, the spread of memes is now so rapid that humanity needs to stop and increase its technological ability to cope with the increased spread of disease.

Stay safe, stay clean, and stay healthy.

Prohibition part 2: Beer, Cholera, and Public Health

Part 1: Did European Filthiness lead to Prohibition?

So why were the immigrants drinking so much?

Simply put, European cities prior to the installation of underground sewers and water purification plants were disgusting, filth-ridden cesspools where the average citizen stood an astronomical chance of being felled by fecal-born diseases. How the cities got to be so revolting is beyond me–it may just be a side effect of living in any kind of city before the invention of effective sewers. Nevertheless, European city dwellers drank their own feces until everyone started catching cholera. (Not to mention E. coli, smallpox, syphilis, typhus, tuberculosis, measles, dysentery, Bubonic Plague, gonorrhea, leprosy, malaria, etc.)

The average superstitious “primitive” knows that dead bodies contain mystical evil contamination properties, and that touching rotting carcasses can infect you with magical death particles that will then kill you (or if you are a witch, your intended victims,) but Europeans were too smart for such nonsense; Ignaz Semmelweis, the guy who insisted that doctors were killing mothers by infecting them with corpse particles by not washing their hands between autopsying dead bodies and delivering babies, was hauled off to an insane asylum and immediately stomped to death by the guards.

The women, of course, had figured out that some hospitals murdered their patients and some hospitals did not; the women begged not to be sent to the patient-murdering hospitals, but such opinions were, again, mere superstitions that the educated classes knew to ignore.

It is amazing what man finds himself suddenly unable to comprehend so long as his incomprehension is necessary for making money, whether it be the amount of food necessary to prevent a child from starving or that you should not wallow in feces.

Forgive me my vitriol, but there are few things I hate worse than disease, and those who willfully spread death and suffering should be dragged into the desert and shot.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

Anyway, back to our story. The much-beleagured “Dark Ages” of Medieval Europe was actually a time of relatively few diseases, just because the population was too low for much major disease transmission, but as the trade routes expanded and cities grew, epidemic after epidemic swept the continent. The Black Death came in 1346, carrying off 75 to 200 million people, or 30-60% of the population. According to the Wikipedia, “Before 1350, there were about 170,000 settlements in Germany, and this was reduced by nearly 40,000 by 1450.” The Black Plague would not disappear from Europe until the 1700s, though it returned again around 1900–infecting San Francisco at the same time–in the little known “Third Plague” outbreak that killed approximately 15 million people, (most of them in India and China,) and officially ended in 1959.

(BTW, rodents throughout much of the world, including America, still harbor plague-bearing fleas which do actually still give people the plague, so be cautious about contact with wild rodents or their carcases, and if you think you have been infected, get to a hospital immediately because modern medicine can generally cure it.)

Toward the end of the 1700s, smallpox killed about 400,000 Europeans per year, wiping out 20-60% of those it infected.

Cholera spreads via the contamination of drinking water with cholera-laden diarrhea. Prevention is simple: don’t shit in the drinking water. If you can’t convince people not to shit in the water supply, then boil, chlorinate, sterilize, filter, or do whatever it takes to get your water clean.

In 1832, Cholera struck the UK, killing 53,000 people; France lost 100,000. In 1854, epidemiologist John Snow risked his life to track the cholera outbreak in Soho, London. His work resulted in one of history’s most important maps:


Each black line represents a death from cholera.

The medical profession of Snow’s day believed that cholera was spread through bad air–miasmas–and that Snow was a madman for being anywhere near air breathed out by cholera sufferers. Snow’s map not only showed that the outbreak was concentrated around one water source, (the PUMP in the center of the map,) but also showed one building on Broad street that had been mysteriously spared the contagion, suffering zero deaths: the brewery.

The monks of the brewery did not drink unadulterated water from the pump; they were drinking beer, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Drinking nothing but beer might sound like a bad strategy, especially if you need to drive anywhere, but beer has a definite advantage over water: fermentation kills pathogens.

It wasn’t until 1866 that the establishment finally started admitting the unpleasant truth that people were catching cholera because they were drinking poop water, but since then, John Snow’s work has saved the lives of millions of people.

Good luck finding anyone who remembers Snow’s name today–much less Semmelweis’s–but virtually every school child in America knows about Amelia Earhart, a woman who’s claim to fame is that she failed to cross the Pacific Ocean in a plane. (Sorry, I was looking at children’s biographies today, and Amelia Earhart remains one of my pet peeves in the category of “Why would I try to inspire girls via failure?”)

But that is all beside the point, which is simply that Europeans who drank lots of beer lived, while Europeans who drank water died. This is the sort of thing that can exert a pretty strong selective pressure on people to drink lots of beer.

Meanwhile, Back in America…

While Americans were not immune to European diseases, lower population density made it harder for epidemics to spread. The same plague that killed 13 million people in China and India killed a mere couple hundred in San Francisco, and appears to have never killed significant numbers in other states.

Low population density meant, among other things, far less excrement in the water. American water was probably far less contaminated than European water, and so Americans had undergone much less selective pressure to drink nothing but beer.

Many American religious groups took a dim view of alcohol. The Puritans did not ban alcohol, but believed it should be drunk in moderation and looked down on drunkenness. The Methodists, another Protestant group that broke away from the Anglican Church in the late 1700s and spread swiftly in America, were against alcohol from their start. Methodist ministers were to drink chiefly water, and by the mid-1880s, they were using “unfermented wine” for their sacraments. The Presbyterians began spreading the anti-alcohol message during the Second Great Awakening, and by 1879, Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, claimed that in America, “almost every [Protestant] Christian minister has become an abstainer.” (source) Even today, many Southern Baptists, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists abstain entirely from alcohol, the Mormons apparently going so far as to use water instead of wine in their sacraments.

Temperance movements also existed in Europe and other European colonies, but never reached the same heights as they did in the US. Simply put, where the water was bad, poor people could not afford to drink non-fermented beverages. Where the water was pure, people could claim drinking it a necessary piece of salvation.

As American cities filled with poor, desperate foreigners fleeing the famine and filth of Europe, their penchant for violent outbursts following over-indulgence in alcohol was not lost on their new neighbors, and so Prohibition’s coalition began to form: women, who were most often on the receiving end of drunken violence; the Ku Klux Klan, which had it out for foreigners generally and Papists especially; and the Protestant ministers, who were opposed to both alcoholism and Papism.

The Germans were never considered as problematic as the Irish, being more likely to be employed and less likely to be engaged in drunken crime, but they held themselves apart from the rest of society, living in their own communities, joining German-specific social clubs, and still speaking German instead of English, which did not necessarily endear them to their neighbors.

Prohibition was opposed primarily by wealthy Germans, (especially the brewers among them;) Episcopalians, (who were afraid their sacramental wine would be banned;) and Catholics. The breweries also campaigned against Women’s Suffrage, on the grounds that pretty much all of the suffragettes were calling for Prohibition.

WWI broke the German community by making it suddenly a very bad idea to be publicly German, and people decided that using American grain to brew German beer instead of sending that grain to feed the fighting men on the front lines was very unpatriotic indeed. President Wilson championed the income tax, which allowed the Federal Government to run off something other than alcohol taxes, women received the right to vote, and Prohibition became the law of the land–at least until 1933, when everyone decided it just wasn’t working out so well.

But by that time, the drinking water problem had been mostly worked out, so people at least had a choice of beverages they could safely and legally imbibe.

Part 1 is here.