The following is taken from Lion Dog African Safaris Weekly Newsletter, #18 / 2020.
Archaeology Shows How
Ancient African Societies Managed Pandemics
Every so often, a pandemic emerges that dramatically alters human society.
The Black Death (1347 – 1351) was one.
The Spanish flu of 1918 was another.
Now there’s COVID-19.
Archaeologists have long studied diseases in past populations. To do so, they study settlement layout, burials, funerary remains, and human skeletons. The insights from these studies expose some of the strategies that societies adopted to deal with pandemics. These included burning settlements as a disinfectant and shifting settlements to new locations. Social distancing was practised by dispersing settlements.
Findings unearthed in southern Zimbabwe show that it was taboo to touch or interfere with remains of the dead, lest diseases be transmitted in this way. Social distancing and isolation formed a critical part of managing pandemics in ancient African societies.
In what is Zimbabwe today, the Shona people in the 17th and 18th centuries isolated those suffering from infectious diseases – such as leprosy – in temporary residential structures. In some cases, corpses were burnt to avoid spreading the contagion.
There were multiple long-term implications of pandemics in these communities. Perhaps the most important was that people organised themselves in ways that made it easier to live with diseases, managing them and at the same time sticking to the basics 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 may be applied to COVID-19, guiding decisions and choices to buffer the vulnerable from the pandemic while allowing economic activity and other aspects of life to continue. As evidence from the past shows, social behaviour is the first line of defence against pandemics: it’s essential this be considered when planning for the latest post-pandemic future.