Native Immunity

I have long believed that native peoples—in the Americas, in Africa and in the South Seas—began to suffer from infectious disease as soon as they came in contact with European colonists. In fact, many have asked me how such healthy people could succumb to disease so quickly.

Colonial Traders and Native Americans

My answer—and not a very good one—was that in traditional cultures that had not had contact with infectious disease, the people did not need to build a strong immune system during growth, so that the nutrient-dense diet could be vectored into building a strong body, keen eyesight and good hearing; and I theorized that having never consumed sugar and therefore not needing a supercharged pancreas to produce a lot of insulin, these people were much more vulnerable to the effects of sugar when they consumed it. This explanation is just another version of the “immunologic inadequacy” and “lack of genetic resistance” arguments that allow doctors and public health officials to ignore the main cause of disease, whether in the Old or New Worlds: malnutrition.

I recently learned that native peoples did not contract infectious disease immediately on contact with the Europeans. For example, fishermen and early explorers visited the northeastern waters along the Atlantic coast during the 15th and 16th centuries, yet we have no historical commentary on the existence of disease or epidemics among the aboriginal peoples during that time. According to Raymond Obomsawin, in his document “Historical and Scientific Perspectives on the Health of Canada’s first Peoples (2007), “Since the prime purpose of this early contact was to commercially exploit natural resources, any visible evidence of the physical weakness or sickness of the indigenous inhabitants would surely have excited some keen interest.”  Instead these early reports marveled at the Native American’s good health and robust constitution.

Obomsawin notes that the first recorded outbreaks of infectious disease in Native Americans living in the Ottawa Valleys occurred between 1734 and 1741.  Champlain established the first European settlement at Quebec on the St. Lawrence River over one hundred years earlier, in 1608, and it wasn’t until the 1800s that smallpox, measles, influenza, dysentery, diphtheria, typhus, yellow fever, whooping cough, tuberculosis, syphilis and various other “fevers” became prevalent in the aboriginal population.

By the mid-18th century, Native American life had succumbed to serious disruptions. As a result of intensive trapping, the game populations had dwindled, seriously affecting the availability of food and skins to make clothing and footwear.  During this period sugar, white flour, coffee, tea and alcohol arrived on trading ships, which the colonists traded to the Indians for furs.

The same pattern prevailed on the West Coast, where the salmon fisheries became significantly depleted by the mid-1800s. These northwest peoples spoke of “disease boats” or “pestilence canoes,” the Spanish and British seagoing vessels that arrived with increasing frequency. They brought smallpox, but also the foods that made them vulnerable to smallpox.  An early one-hundred-foot sailing cargo vessel could transport as much as eight hundred thousand pounds of “goods”—or maybe we should say “bads.”


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Tribal peoples largely dependent upon the buffalo were not affected until the early 1870s, when the animals became depleted through exploitation and deliberate campaigns to kill off the herds upon which they depended.

According to a Canadian government report, “The transformation of Aboriginal people from the state of good health that had impressed travelers from Europe to one of ill health. . . grew worse as sources of food and clothing from the land declined and traditional economies collapsed. It grew worse still as once mobile peoples were confined to small plots of land where resources and opportunities for natural sanitation were limited. It worsened yet again as long-standing norms, values, social systems and spiritual practices were undermined or outlawed.”

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Regarding Plymouth colony, the Pilgrims were not the first Europeans in the area.  European fishermen had been sailing off the New England coast, with considerable Native American contact, for much of the 16th and 17th centuries, and trading for beaver skins commenced in the early 1600s, prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620.

In 1605, the Frenchman Samuel de Champlain made an extensive and detailed map of the area and the surrounding lands, showing the Patuxet village (where the town of Plymouth was later built) as a thriving settlement.

In 1617-1618, just prior to the arrival of the Mayflower, a mysterious epidemic wiped out up to 90 percent of the Indian population along the Massachusetts coast. History books blame the epidemic on smallpox, but a recent analysis has concluded that it may have been a disease called leptospirosis. (Even today, leptospirosis kills almost sixty thousand people per year.)

Both wild and domestic animals can transmit leptospirosis through their urine and other fluids; rodents are the most common vector, and the beaver is a rodent. During springtime both male and female beavers secrete a sticky, pungent substance called castoreum to attract other beavers, often depositing it in small “scent mounds” near the runways leading into their lodges. Trappers used castoreum to scent their traps in order to catch the beavers and also traded it with the Europeans, who valued it as a base for flower-scented perfumes. Perhaps this early instance of disease was a kind of Beaver Revenge, spread by the leptospirosis organism in their castoreum—payback for exploitation of their species, for hunting them almost to extermination!

Anyway, the point is that the infectious diseases that caused so much suffering did not arrive until after a period of nutritional decline; and fear and despair almost certainly played a role.  When disease broke out in a village, the afflicted often found themselves abandoned by those still healthy, so they had no one to care for them. Unable to get water for themselves, they typically died of thirst. This may explain why the death rates during outbreaks were so much higher for the Native Americans (typically 90 percent) than for Europeans (typically 30 percent).

This is not to say that exposure to new microorganisms does not play a role in causing epidemics of infectious disease—but these new organisms are not likely to cause disease in well-nourished individuals with strong immune systems.

Now let’s fast forward to today. We have a population of children who are extremely poorly nourished. Both bad diet and the practice of vaccination can weaken the immune system. (See Tom Cowan’s book Vaccines, Autoimmunity and the Changing Nature of Childhood Illness for an explanation of how vaccinations depress rather than enhance the immune system.) And thanks to the practice of vaccination, we are also seeing the emergence of new and more virulent forms of diseases like measles and pertussis. Dr. Cowan and many others are predicting a resurgence of massive epidemics, outbreaks of infectious disease against which modern medicine will be helpless. Dear parents, please be forewarned and protect your children in advance—feed them nutrient-dense foods, especially foods rich in the fat-soluble activators, and just say No to vaccines.

The Weston A. Price Foundation has been providing information on raising healthy children for the last twenty years.  Join us to celebrate our 20th birthday at our Wise Traditions 2019, November 15-17

Author: Sally Fallon Morell

Sally Fallon Morell is best known as the author of Nourishing Traditions®: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. This well-researched, thought-provoking guide to traditional foods contains a startling message: animal fats and cholesterol are not villains but vital factors in the diet, necessary for normal growth, proper function of the brain and nervous system, protection from disease and optimum energy levels.

5 thoughts on “Native Immunity”

  1. Thank you for this very Interesting article, Sally!

    The Nourishing Traditions readers are familiar with the importance of nutrition The exceptional perspective of this article is its inclusion of the land as essential for health as well. Native peoples regarded the land as medicine. Therefore losing the land was losing their good medicine.

    That factor can be considered for modern Americans much the same way. Consider how everything comes from the land and soil.[1] This “everything” includes our self-government given that the original states that made up “The United States of America” were all land and soil based states. These states are what we as an American people need to recover because our sovereign immunity is totally dependent upon our possession of the actual land and soil of the states where we live.

    [1] https://www.curezone.org/blogs/fm.asp?i=2346773

  2. So the hypothesis of the book 1491 is largely off base, that is that huge numbers of Aboriginal Americans were killed off by diseases through minimal contact with Europeans and their animals?

  3. Insightful article. I have searched by and far to find out epidemics from south indian literature but in vain. When a school told me, there was epidemic known to us and that’s why you don’t find any , i couldn’t but believe him.
    This article gives more insight on other native people around the globe.
    Thanks.
    Dr. G. Prema. Homeopath.

  4. very interesting theory. I live in Hawaii where the same problems occurred, but not until the population was removed from the land. It is said that they were malnourished but they didn’t have disease so the balance must have been precarious. I think there is a certain amount of truth to the matter that these different peoples had a closed mitochondrial system. The Hawaiians shared the poi bowl; all peoples’ fingers went into it for a dip and then into the mouth and into the bowl again. They also have a breath air thing where they breathe in each other’s air through close proximity. These factors didn’t make them sick where today I would think twice about doing either one of these activities with most people! There are so many germs et al floating around today compared to back then.

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