There is little doubt that the world was caught with it’s pants down in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has caused nations to virtually shut down leading to joblessness and economic instability. Here in America, the latest statistic as of today was around 6.6 million citizens have now applied for unemployment. Additionally, governments around the world are emphasizing the need to “socially distance” from one another to prevent viral disease transmission.
But what does “social distancing” really mean? Is it effective? How long must this go on until we can return to enjoying ourselves at crowded bars and restaurants?
The latter question will be answered by the virus itself; when it is done, it will be done. But a retrospective look into the lives of pre-agricultural humans really simplifies the “why” and “how” regarding “social distancing.” DISCLAIMER: The use of “hunter gatherer” and “forager” are used interchangeably in this article.
Humans (in the form of homo sapiens sapiens) have been on this earth an estimated 150,000 – 200,000 years (6, 5). During their early existence on earth, a human’s day-to-day activities were in stark contrast to modern Americans. For starters, survival revolved around movement (2, 4). Humans hunted and gathered which required travel, forced them to consistently set up camp (or home) in new places, and to keep the band size at a manageable number (2).
It wasn’t until the advent of the agricultural revolution when humans began to see a decline in their locomotion and physical mobility. They started domesticating animals and bringing larger scale crops into and around their living areas. This supplied humans with an abundance of food, allowed their local populations to proliferate, and required them to move far less. Why hunt and gather if you have livestock and berries feet away from your dwelling? As great as this sounds, this spurred a cornucopia of problems that would nag humans indefinitely.
Agricultural societies were able to grow their populations due to resources and food availability, but they also wanted to stay closer to the supply. This led to smaller living spaces with more and more humans living in close proximity to each other. Only after the agricultural revolution were large masses of people able to cohabitate with animal and plant food sources under their control. This, combined with emerging animal-to-human zoonotic diseases, set the stage for mass infections and the possibility of endemics and, subsequently over time, pandemics.
A number of infectious diseases that infect humans today have their origins in animals. COVID-19, Ebola, SARS, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, Nipah Virus, Bat rabies, and Avian Influenza are all examples infectious pathogens that originated in animals and then infected humans (3). A pathogen transmits from animal to human through several avenues, but most notably through the very animals humans domesticated and/or brought into their daily lives. Unbeknownst to early agriculturist humans, infectious diseases were additionally being contracted, mutated, and transmitted via the livestock held closely to their homes (3).
In contrast to post-agricultural revolution humans, looking back at pre-agriculturists may give us the “why” in regards to “social distancing.” First, and foremost, hunter gatherers were in far less contact with animals aside from wild life and the hunt. Secondly, their local populations were much smaller because there were less resources to support a large amount of people. Lastly, foragers were always on the move and interacted with outside bands far less than people of today (1).
Back then, there wasn’t travel via airplane, no transcontinental railroad, and no spur of the moment road trips to a neighboring state. There were less opportunities for vast transmission of infectious disease which, in turn, limited the spread of a particular communicable pathogen. Get where this is going?
Foragers essentially practiced (unbeknownst to them) “social distancing.” It was more so programmed into their daily lives, much like exercise (the need to consistently move to hunt and survive). If a forager band were to encounter a virulent infectious disease, the repercussions would be limited in regards to the overall human population. Perhaps the whole band would succumb to the infection, but the pathogen would be unlikely to spread outside of the affected band. In the rare case that an infectious band mingled with another, the disease would still be limited to those two groups. This is because there weren’t large swaths of people that would enable a large chain of transmission from one coast of the country to the other.
This is another instance where modern humans might be able to learn from their ancestors. The good thing about today is that even though we are “social distancing,” we are far from social isolation. We have the internet, iPads, and smart phones that keep us socially connected to the world and other humans. This alone should sustain us through a period of physical and social distancing. What do you think?
3. Jones, B. A., Grace, D., Kock, R., Alonso, S., Rushton, J., Said, M. Y., McKeever, D., Mutua, F., Young, J., McDermott, J., & Pfeiffer, D. U. (2013). Zoonosis emergence linked to agricultural intensification and environmental change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(21), 8399–8404. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1208059110
5. Stock J. T. (2008). Are humans still evolving? Technological advances and unique biological characteristics allow us to adapt to environmental stress. Has this stopped genetic evolution?. EMBO reports, 9 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), S51–S54. https://doi.org/10.1038/embor.2008.63