Archeology shows how ancient African societies dealt with pandemics

Every now and then a pandemic arises that dramatically changes human society. The Black Death (1347 – 1351) was one; the Spanish flu of 1918 was another. Now there is COVID-19.

Archaeologists have long studied diseases in past populations. To do this, they consider a wide range of evidence: settlement layouts, burials, grave remains and human skeletons.

Thanks to archaeologists, for example, we know that the damaging effects of epidemics led to the abandonment of the settlements at Akrokrowa in Ghana in the early 14th century AD. About 76 children’s cemeteries in 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 societies adopted to deal with pandemics. These include burning settlements as a fumigant and moving settlements to new locations. Social distancing was practiced by spreading settlements. The findings of archaeologists at Mwenezi in southern Zimbabwe also show that it was a taboo to touch or interfere with the remains of the dead, to prevent disease being transmitted in this way. In the late 1960s, some members of an archaeological dig excavating 13th-century house floors in Phalaborwa, South Africa, refused to continue working after coming across burials they believed to be sacred. They also feared the burials were linked to a disease outbreak.

Social distancing and isolation have become key during the COVID-19 pandemic. We know from archeology that these same practices were a crucial part of controlling pandemics in historical African societies. In what is now Zimbabwe, the Shona people in the 17th and 18th centuries isolated those suffering from infectious diseases – such as leprosy – in temporary housing structures. This meant that very few people could come into contact with the sick. In some cases, bodies were burned to prevent the spread of the infection.

People tend to relax and shift priorities once the emergencies are over. Data collected by archaeologists showing how indigenous knowledge systems helped ancient societies in Africa cope with the shock 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 (which dates back to between 1000 and 1200 AD) prospered from agriculture, livestock farming, metallurgy, 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. Swahili towns in East Africa served as conduits.

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

Archaeological work in early urban settlements in central and southern Ghana moved to another region of Africa and identified the impact of pandemics at sites such as Akrokrowa (950 – 1300 AD) and Asikuma-Odoben-Brakwa in the Central District of Ghana .

These settlements, like others in the Birim Valley of southern Ghana, were bounded by complex systems of trenches and embankments. There is evidence that settlements were abruptly abandoned after a few centuries of continuous and stable occupation. The period of desolation seems to coincide with the devastation of the Black Death in Europe.

After the pandemic, houses were not rebuilt; nor did any waste accumulate during daily activities. Instead, the disrupted communities moved elsewhere. With no signs of long-term effects – in the form of long periods of hardship, deaths, or drastic socio-economic or political changes – archaeologists believe these communities were able to manage and adapt to the pandemic.

Analysis of archaeological evidence shows that these ancient African communities employed different strategies to manage pandemics. These include burning settlements as a fumigant before reoccupying them or moving farms to new locations. African indigenous knowledge systems make it clear that burning settlements or forests was an established way to control disease.

The layout of the settlements was also important. For example, in areas such as Zimbabwe and parts of Mozambique, settlements were spread out to house one or two families in one space. This allowed people to remain distant from each other – but not too far apart to participate in daily care, support and collaboration. While social cohesion was the glue that held society together, social distancing was built in in a supportive way. Communities knew that outbreaks were unpredictable but possible, so they built their settlements spread out into the future to plan ahead.

This behavior was also reinforced by diversified diets that included fruits, carrots and other things that provided nutrients and boosted the immune system.

Africa’s past and future of pandemics

There were multiple long-term consequences of pandemics in these communities. Perhaps most importantly, people organized themselves in ways that made it easier to live with and manage disease while adhering to basic principles such as good hygiene, sanitation, and environmental control. Life did not stop because of pandemics: populations made decisions and choices to live with them.

Some of these lessons can be applied to COVID-19 and can guide decisions and choices to protect the vulnerable from the pandemic while allowing economic activity and other aspects of life to continue. As shown by the past, social behavior is the first line of defense against pandemics: it is essential that this is taken into account when planning the latest post-pandemic future.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand 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 Global Professorship at the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford.

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