Germs in the Stone Age?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

August 2008

Most people alive today exist in a world in which germs, ranging from the tiniest viruses to 20-foot-long tapeworms, are no longer a constant threat. The credit for that relatively happy state — relative in the sense that the most common infectious diseases have largely been eliminated in developed countries — goes to the plumbers of the world as well as the doctors. Unlike our cousins in the Third World we draw safe water from our taps and we walk along streets free of raw sewage.

Vaccines have so dramatically changed disease patterns that today's pediatricians may never see a child whose brain is wiped out by measles, an infant choking to death from whooping cough, a toddler crippled by meningitis or a baby born deaf and blind because her mother had German measles. When I began my medical career nearly 50 years ago I dealt with all these heartbreaks.

Like today's teenager who has never known life without a cell phone, every American below the age of 80 has grown up in the antibiotic era. A strep throat no longer results in a damaged heart, elderly patients recover quickly from pneumonia and an infected wound is almost never a death sentence.

On the other hand, Stone Age humans were not as vulnerable to infectious diseases as one might think. Sewage was not a danger because there were so few people that waste never accumulated. Water, their only beverage, came from streams that were free of pollution. To be sure, there were parasites deposited by animal and human neighbors that lived upstream but otherwise healthy persons tolerate worms and similar invaders pretty well. After all, a successful parasite lives off its host without killing it, preserving in a sense, the golden goose. Waste from both humans and animals consists almost entirely of normal flora.

Microbiologists use the term normal flora to describe the viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites that take up residence within our bodies from the instant we are born. In fact, in the course of thousands of generations of evolutionary adaptation we have come to depend on them. They form a wall of protection against dangerous germs, they help us to develop protective antibodies and they even provide us with nutrients that our own bodies can't extract from our food. When we wipe out those good germs with a stiff dose of antibiotics the bad ones take over. Seven decades of use — and misuse — of antibiotics have backed us into a corner and the germs are winning. Resistant strains of staphylococcus (MRSA) and tuberculosis (MDR-TB) are the most obvious recent examples.

If a Stone Age human died of infection it most likely followed a wound sustained in a hunt or in combat. The fossil record shows that small injuries, sometimes major ones, healed themselves.

Most of our prehistoric ancestors never saw more than a hundred or so other humans in their lifetime, which made it unlikely that an epidemic could ever get started. There were simply not enough players.

Germs in the Stone Age? Of course, but the germs didn't always win.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.