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The Black Death may have transformed medieval societies in sub-Saharan Africa (sciencemag.org)
87 points by Thevet 16 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 41 comments

> Whatever calamity struck medieval sub-Saharan Africa, its impact was lasting. Akrokrowa was abandoned by about 1365, and Kirikongo was never the same. The settlement stayed small, the ceramics got much simpler, and the culture changed to more closely resemble that of the nearby Mali Empire. "It does seem to be a break," Dueppen says.

I like to bring up black death in discussions when people complain that our current time is "difficult". In southern Europe in the middle of the 14th century, it is likely that around 80% of the population died over a few years. In Milan, town officials closed buildings with bricks as soon as they learned that anyone in that house was infected (with the people still inside, of course). Also, the social impact of this disease is often forgotten: I read somewhere that any interpersonal relationship between 2 or more people was effectively destroyed, because the other may already have been infected. Parents refused to take care of their own children, and people saw no reason to do long-term planning anymore (including farming). An epidemic like that basically decomposes the fabric of society, and therefore culture, very quickly, in a way only few other catastrophes are able to, and it may take centuries to recover from that. Or the society will never recover at all:

> Historians have found previously unknown mentions of epidemics in Ethiopian texts from the 13th to the 15th centuries, including one that killed "such a large number of people that no one was left to bury the dead."

We live in a tiny bubble of time that could change at any moment. Our recent ancestors struggled with smallpox outbreaks, measles, and of course the horror that is polio. My mother knew a man who lived in an iron lung! We’re just part of one or two generations that has enjoyed both vaccines, and potent antibiotics, but were only ever a novel pathogen away from reliving the horrors of medieval plague towns. The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed millions of people, and given populations densities and air travel today, such an outbreak would kill far more. Society is no more resilient today if we’re being honest, but it’s more dependent on technology a relative few can understand or repair, and on food and water being delivered to our towns or homes.

If the shit hits the fan, we’ll be in a truly unenviable position.

Yes and no. Our biology hasn't changed since the middle ages, but we're so much better with sanitation, medicine, and communication that it's much less likely that we'd suffer the sort of population-decimating plagues of the past. Not impossible, but much less likely. In the 1300s, nobody even understood what caused disease or how it spread. They had a vague understanding that sickness could be contageous, but that was about it.

A pandemic flu really wouldnt be something we could cope with. The combination of a long contagious latent period and high R0 would be devastating, and we need to bat perfectly every time to stop it. Sure, we can stop things like MERS and SARS and H1N1, but it just takes one slipping through and our knowledge won’t matter. Besides, we literally can stop things like measles, but people are too stupid and superstitious!

It’s easy to look back on people who believed in the miasma theory of contagion, and laugh, but we haven’t come so far. We know our abuse of antibiotics is going to come home to roost, and we do very little to stop it. We know that cutting further into unspoiled habitats raises the risk of discovering something our immune systems have never encountered, but we do it.

A black swan event like 1918 would play out just the same today as any other time.

The 1918 flu killed 20-50 million people out of a population at the time of 1.8 billion, i.e. somewhere between 1 and 2.7%. That is not even in the same ballpark as the black death, which killed a third of the people in Europe and more in other parts of the world. Even a worst case scenario today is extremely unlikely to be that devastating.

And yet the 1918 flu had profound effects, and there is no guarantee that any future pandemic wouldn’t have a much higher CFR and total mortality. We also have to consider the impact of societal collapse in the near term, and the deaths that would cause. It’s true that the Black Death was spectacularly deveststing, but it’s also true that in a world where regular shipments of food and medicine are critical to daily survival, the diseases themselves would probably be secondary to starvation and societal collapse. Very very few people in the developed world could support themselves without the context of a functioning state for very long. It’s also true that we’re armed to the teeth and have lots of transportation. People would fight for food, fight for medicine they were used to a steady supply of, and you’d have mass casualties from thst alone. In the true (hopefully deeply unlikely) worst cast you’d see the use of nuclear weapons.

The deaths in Asia from the plague had very little impact on Europeans, and visa versa. We can’t honestly say the same today. If something like MERS mutates in the right way, we could very easily look at a similar CFR to the Black Death, in a world with more than 7 billion people in it.

The comparable event to Black Death in Europe was religious wars with population loss up to 60% in Germany and Czech. We do not need plague.


Deviantart is your source? Really?


The war ranks with the worst famines and plagues as the greatest medical catastrophe in modern European history.[78][79] Lacking good census information, historians have extrapolated the experience of well-studied regions.[80] John Theibault agrees with the conclusions in Günther Franz's Der Dreissigjährige Krieg und das Deutsche Volk (1940), that population losses were great but varied regionally (ranging as high as 50%) and says his estimates are the best available.[81] The war killed soldiers and civilians directly, caused famines, destroyed livelihoods, disrupted commerce, postponed marriages and childbirth, and forced large numbers of people to relocate. The overall reduction of population in the German states was typically 25% to 40%.[82] Some regions were affected much more than others.[83] For example, Württemberg lost three-quarters of its population during the war.[84] In the region of Brandenburg, the losses had amounted to half, while in some areas, an estimated two-thirds of the population died.[85] Overall, the male population of the German states was reduced by almost half.[86]

All told that DA map seems to be grounded in the best research available. It’s also a great example of how a primary shock opens the way for massive secondary casualties due to diseases and social disruption. The war itself in terms of direct casualties was dwarfed by resultant famine and epidemic diseases as a result of the primary casualties and destruction.

Here’s a simple thought experiment: What happens in densely populated cities when everything from sanitation to firefighting breaks down due to primary casualties? We’re not rural 17th century Germans, so a fire is going to spread catastrophically if the people who are meant to fight it are sick or afraid to leave their families. Just like the 30 Years War, but on a far greater scale, the secondary effects would dominate.

To say nothing of the fact that even according to that questionable source, the highest levels of population loss happened only in very small regions. Oh, and this whole thing is a non-squitur because war is a totally different risk than an epidemic, especially since 1945.

In many respects modern society is far more fragile than it was in the past. We have better sanitation, healthcare and abundant food, certainly. Yet almost everything we have depends on longer and longer, vastly more complex, supply chains that might spread across multiple countries.

During the black death, being pre-industrial, everyone in a town or village was close enough to the land that losing half a population did not leave them clueless. A horse or an ox, a ploughshare, and some people gets things going again.

That scale today would have unimaginable secondary consequences and could get impossibly ugly while we figured it out.

Most of our manufacturing comes from the other side of the globe. Just in time supply means there aren't barns and warehouses filled with food and spare parts any more. Global travel will spread any epidemic beautifully, long before nations start closing ports and borders. How long could most modern nations cope with closed ports?

So if something virulent enough to decimate a population comes along, for which we have no immediate answer, I doubt modern society would cope at all well. Heck, look how badly we coped with BSE - a problem we mostly engineered ourselves through greed and arrogance. We're just remarkably lucky that nothing dangerous enough has come along during the antibiotic age. Hopefully it won't, but eventually it probably will.

The strange thing is that Europe recovered quite fast. The survivors (or more, their children) ended up significantly better-off, for a century or so, basically because there was more land per person, so you could just farm the better parts.

Whether something like that happened in (say) Ethiopia too, will I guess be even harder to figure out than whether they had the plague at all.

> The survivors (or more, their children) ended up significantly better-off, for a century or so, basically because there was more land per person.

Indeed, this is something I always found extremely fascinating. The plague destroyed the very rigid social and economic structures of medieval Europe. Simply put, they had to take anyone as a goldsmith's apprentice, even some poor farmer's kid, because everyone else was dead. I am quite sure it is no coincidence that the Renaissance appeared 1-2 generations after the black death, and always held the secret opinion that European culture was basically born in the fire that was the black death epidemic.

> The strange thing is that Europe recovered quite fast.

Easy answer: the plague was much, much, much more devastating in Ethiopia than in Europe, leaving no one behind to recover from anything, or to tell the harrowing story.

> Easy answer: the plague was much, much, much more devastating in Ethiopia than in Europe, leaving no one behind to recover from anything, or to tell the harrowing story.

I disagree. There must have been some people left behind (assuming such a plague happened) because there are still people in Ethiopia and at least some of the culture from then still exists (I’m thinking of the Ethiopian church but I expect there is plenty more). If there were no people left then such things would have died out. Therefore I think we should conclude that either some people were able to recover (or the plague was localised to some regions which were completely destroyed whereas others survived). I think in either case one would still expect this plague to be known about and I would certainly expect such a large event to leave at least some clues behind in eg oral traditions or written records.

Secondly this answer is assuming that the question is reasonable (ie that Ethiopia recovered more slowly than Europe). I’m not sure that there is much evidence either way about it. There are two parts to this: one is recovering back to a similar state as before the plague, and another is recovering to the same level as each other. It is slightly unclear to me which the question means but I suppose I would guess the first.

In my opinion, any difference in recovery is going to be much more related to the differences of geography (and maybe politics) than differences of devastation. One caveat would be that maybe social structures could cause the plague to be more devastating in one place than another but I’m not sure I buy it. I expect most medieval social structures would soon be reacting quite similarly to a plague of such proportions.

> I am quite sure it is no coincidence that the Renaissance appeared 1-2 generations after the black death, and always held the secret opinion that European culture was basically born in the fire that was the black death epidemic.

I've heard that hypothesis from both popular and scholarly sources before. Pretty sure it's a broadly held theory.

> I am quite sure it is no coincidence that the Renaissance appeared 1-2 generations after the black death,

The opposite - Black Death had delayed the Renaissance for circa 2-3 generations. It was already happening and then the plague came and the Renaisance have played out later in different times and with different people and ideas.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_renaissances

I'm not sure I would go this far, there was a lot else that went on.

But economically, for sure it was huge... we can actually trace several such swings in pre-industrial England, plotting population against per-capita income (or calories!) and it walks back & forth along the same curve a few times over the centuries.

Not the black death so much(though that may have facilitated some positive social changes... I'm not that familiar with the time period), but the trade that was facilitated by the mongol empire definitely facilitated Europeans desire to explore the world.

Perhaps the infrastructure had been built for a large population, with quick enough growth people could reinflate society before things started decay

Mind you I’m not sure how much one can scale giving birth and raising children, perhaps the child mortality rate declined?

For Europe, it also enabled rearrangement of tenancies for better use of land, and for some the chance to switch to being a free tenant in place of mere serf. Suddenly there was a chance to make money from what might be profitable to sell at market rather than what the lord required them to grow. Growing what they chose on land for coin, in place of being required to give x sacks of wheat, or y sheep every year, may have been the first real opportunity to make in excess of subsistence.

Failing that, run away to another region to work for higher rates as a labourer and hope your liege lord doesn't find you.

Little wonder that there were new laws trying to stop mere serfs profiting from this.

>The strange thing is that Europe recovered quite fast.

I suspect this has to do with Europe's water-dominated geography. Traveling between Ethiopia and Mali -- two of the largest sub-Saharan "countries" of antiquity -- requires taking a caravan through the desert and/or jungle. But going from England to Poland is a boat ride. So reestablishing communication between distant societies probably happened much faster in Europe, which supported knowledge-sharing and thus scientific progress.

Europe also had a shared language of scholarship (Latin) and a political institution (Catholic Church) that made it easy for information and invention to travel across nation state boundaries.

These things are true, but it wasn't long-distance trade or scientific progress which made English people richer in 1400 than in 1350. It was more land per peasant.

That things did not completely fall apart when the plague hit may be due to having relatively strong institutions, but again I'd argue that what mattered here was at the parish level, not Rome.

Ethiopia was also quite a centralised state in medieval times (with a uniting church language playing a role like Latin's). But we don't actually know whether it suffered a larger or smaller plague at that time, it seems. We do know that it did not suffer collapse on the scale of pre-Colombian American civilisations, that we would certainly know about already.

Ethiopia at the time had pretty extensive trade and intellectual exchange with Christians in Europe and in the Arab world, particularly the Coptic Orthodox Church most Ethiopian Christians belonged to. Likewise, Muslim East African countries were very closely linked to the rest of the Islamic world.

2/5ths of Europe at the time were Orthodox and Greek based.

Some parts even non-Christian.

I guess I should have specified Western Europe.

There is a relatively strong correlation between immune function, intelligence and longevity. Maybe the epidemics made the population smarter on average?


"Eschew flamebait. Don't introduce flamewar topics unless you have something genuinely new to say. Avoid unrelated controversies and generic tangents."


I do think there is an interesting discussion to be had along these lines (since I am having that discussion with a friend off of HN at the moment) but the way I went about things was not conducive to that.

Sorry about that.

Yes. Conversations with friends and broadcasting to millions of people need different approaches. But an internet forum like HN is such an intimate-seeming environment that this is hard to see unless you observe it closely for a long time, and even then one still gets it wrong at times.

Btw, I really appreciate all the effort you put into keeping this place what it is. That being one of the few places I’ve found where you can really flesh out ideas with reasonable, intelligent people.

So thank you.

I just wanted to say that I appreciate the way you took the criticism of your first comment. Well done, my friend.

If you want to have controversial discussions with intelligent people of good will in a highly moderated tone policed environment go to r/TheMotte.

Unless/until we revert to an agrarian society where your livelihood depends on the amount of land you have to farm, I'm pretty sure there's not much to ponder here.

We’re all still constrained by resources of one kind or another. And we all still compete with each other for those limited resources. So it seems to me like the logic still holds.

Or, more concretely, the reason why I get to enjoy a comfortable middle class lifestyle is because there aren’t many people who can do what I do. There isn’t much competition driving down software engineering wages, in other words. I can’t see how it would somehow not be better for lower class people to have less competition for the jobs they do.

The Decameron has a contemporaneous account of the plague in Florence that has always stuck with me in its first section, "The Plague of Florence" (you can see here, http://faculty.sgc.edu/rkelley/The%20Decameron.pdf ).

The whole section is worth reading but a fragment following descriptions of people that exhibited extreme temperance out of fear, or extreme partying out of nihilism is, "Of the adherents of these divers opinions not all died, neither did all escape; but rather there were, of each sort and in every place, many that sickened, and by those who retained their health were treated after the example which they themselves, while whole, had set, being everywhere left to languish in almost total neglect. Tedious were it to recount, how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbours was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinsfolk held aloof, and never met, or but rarely; enough that this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men and women, that in the horror thereof brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister, and oftentimes husband by wife; nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers. Wherefore the sick of both sexes, whose number could not be estimated, were left without resource but in the charity of friends (and few such there were), or the interest of servants, who were hardly to be had at high rates and on unseemly terms, and being, moreover, one and all men and women of gross understanding, and for the most part unused to such offices, concerned themselves no farther than to supply the immediate and expressed wants of the sick, and to watch them die; in which service they themselves not seldom perished with their gains."

This passage always struck me as a particularly living and breathing account of what it might have been like to live through that time in human history.

Today I would wonder what that would be after the fact.

Whole towns and cities largely abandoned? Small county roads and highways left to rot?

Massive tracts of housing empty.

Would communities consolidate toward city centers, and sort of "turn off" whole suburbs? You really can't keep all the sewer and plumbing for all those places online if nobody is there.

What would we do with all the extra material goods lying around in these houses?

Then there are all the factories and chemicals and pollutants at those place that would need to be cleaned up and stored as they're not being actively maintained.

"I like to bring up black death in discussions when people complain that our current time is "difficult"."

IMO, we can do so much more with the technological advances we've made. We have used technology to tame nature, but are unable to tame the beast within ourselves.

Having to compare our information age society with feudal societies wracked with the plague to prove how much better things are proves my point. Things should be way better, but they aren't outside of the small bubbles that are slowly popping/deflating in the first world.

We don't live in that time period anymore. Our current Era is tough in its own ways, without people like you invalidating someone else's troubles. Done be a one-upper.

> in sub-Saharan Africa while excavating the site of Akrokrowa in Ghana.

Article never says if this is modern Ghana or the Ghana Empire. Elsewhere it uses "Nigeria", and then goes back to talking about Akrokrowa being near the Mali Empire.

I wish it will be a bit more specific. There seems to be a dearth of historical/archeological information about the site that is modern day Ghana (save legendary accounts from various tribes) before the Portuguese arrived at Elmina.

Plausible explanations, but the evidence is flimsy at best

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