I suppose we had forgotten.  Until we got our own pandemic.  Didn’t Salk and Sabin take care of these things?  More about them later.  Another article.  That’s Polio.

Let us start, then, at the beginning.  Except that we can’t go that far back in antiquity.  It seems these little beasties have been tracking us for an eternity.  Not really.  In the case of many, maybe no more than 40,000 years.  At least in a pandemic form.  And, probably only intently, after we concentrated animal husbandry!

Isn’t that about when our fully formed species arrived?  No, we developed much earlier.  Why, then, 40,000 years?  Because of the Americans.  The original ones.  But we are not certain when we, the first humans, arrived in the Americas.

We believe that the first version of our species [Homo Sapiens] developed in Africa around 250,000 years ago, spreading into Eurasia, perhaps 100,000 years or so later.  And about 70,000 years ago, something big changed in our social abilities.  Our larynx had dropped sufficiently down in our throats, and our mental processes somehow improved.  We had learned to speak to each other in more complicated ways.  To gossip about others, behind their backs.  And we learned, in that way, to fight in larger coordinated groups.  After that, the Neanderthals never had a chance.  Even though they were stronger, had bigger brains, and drew on cave walls too.

No earlier than 40,000 years ago, and maybe much later, we migrated across the Bering Strait and into the Americas, or boated down its coastline.  When Columbus “rediscovered” us in 1492 [don’t forget the Vikings at “Vinland” in around 1000 A.D.], there were no epidemic diseases of cholera, yellow fever, malaria, measles, bubonic plague, leprosy, or smallpox in the world that was “New.”  That these diseases, brought by the Europeans, were so devastating here, reflects the lack of previous exposure to those specific disease vectors, and the absence of immunological defenses developed as a result.  [There is controversy about the origin of syphilis].

So let us reach back to a time when the more vicious forms of these diseases developed in the increased human populations in the “Old” World.  Let us begin with the Egyptians and their writings, and then move to the increased populations in other places.

What was going on then, in the world of Egyptian Pharaoh Semerkhet, 5,000 years ago?  Not much else was happening to concentrate population in the sense of civilization.

Well, that’s certainly not true!

Agriculture had come to the Fertile Crescent, India, and parts of China and Central America.  The city of Uruk, in Mesopotamia, was huge, maybe 50,000 people, and had already invented cuneiform writing.  And in Mohenjo-daro, in the Indus Valley, forty thousand people had gathered by 2,000 B.C.  Emmer wheat, barley, chickpea, flax, vetch, pea, and lentil were grown in the Middle East.  Rice and corn, in their respective regions.  Cows, goats, sheep, and pigs were being domesticated in the “Old” World.  And, soon enough, the horse.  The world’s population was getting ready to explode, as was the animal husbandry that was to propel it.

But, for the sake of starting this essay, let’s begin with the Egyptians.  They had something to tell us.

They were writing early on, even if primarily in weird looking flat pictures on stone.  During the First Dynasty days of Pharaoh Semerkhet, around 2920 B.C., a prominent stone stela, setting out his reign, described a “significant destruction” in Egypt.  A great pestilence of some sort.  Now, that is a Biblical sounding word.  Pestilence.   And those books can be terrifying! [Take a look at Psalms 91:1-8 KJV, or I Kings 8:37 KJV, for example].

But what do we know of this early Egyptian calamity, described on stone?  Nothing.  But I can say that, today, billions of locusts are again swarming in Africa!

And we do know something about Egypt and the Near East back then, in Semerkhet’s time.  So here goes:

The population in the world around 5,000 years ago was probably 30 million [give or take 15 million.  I know, a big spread].  How many in Egypt then?  Impossible to say in a reasonably close way, but scholars have reasonable methods of estimation.  So let us be conservative and state between 1 and 2 million.  And, probably, all of them lived beside the fertile strip along the Nile, which is otherwise set in a barren desert.  So add in some reasonably sized villages [say Memphis, with 20,000 people] with concentrated animal husbandry, and you have sufficient crowding to breed an epidemic.

Maybe.  I note that crowding was certainly not necessary to decimate the Native American populations after Columbus “discovered” them.  But then, those alien pathogens were brought over the oceans already fully “developed!”

Semerkhet was the seventh Pharaoh in the First Egyptian Dynasty.  The first one was Menes, probably the Scorpion King from a long time ago in the history of civilization [see the Narmer Palette].  We know of these First Dynasty Kings from a single stela broken into seven pieces.  They describe the royal annals through the first Five Dynasties, ca. 3100-2283 B.C.

Scholars have divined references to, perhaps, 250 epidemics, between Pharaoh Semerkhet’s reference and the plague of Roman Emperor Justinian, around 1540 A.D.  We have better records after that.  But few, before, had good witnesses.

Thucydides was one who survived the Plague of Athens, recording it, in great warning detail, around 430 B.C., in his “History of the Peloponnesian Wars.”  Later Procopius, in his “History of Wars,” described Emperor Justinian’s plague centered in Constantinople, about 2,000 years later.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Let this be the starting subject of a new series on the great pandemics in history!  But first, I now conclude with some more biblical passages.  Always a good place to start in a pandemic.

For example, the ten plagues that Moses brought upon the Pharaoh.  [King James Version, Exodus 7-11].  They were, 1) stinking dead fish in the bloody Nile; 2) frogs; 3) lice; 4) flies; 5) murrain [livestock disease]; 6) boils and blains [inflamed pustules]; 7) hail, fire, and thunder; 8) locusts [grasshoppers, as noted above. Are you worried now?]; 9) darkness; and 10) the death of first-born man or beast.


But wait.  There’s more!

Look at the Book of Ezra in the Hebrew Bible.  “I will send plagues on thee; widowhood, poverty, famine, sword, and pestilence, to waste thy houses with destruction and death.” (2 Esdras 15 (49) KJV).

Yikes again.

Something’s going on around here!



  1. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is a marvelous book if people want to learn more of the connections between colonization and the role germs played in that process. Another good book on the topic is 1491: New Revelations of the America before Columbus by Charles Mann

  2. Great article … sitting inside in a smoke filled world out here in California, it shows the many sides of how vulnerable we are …

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