The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: Health and Nutrition in Pre-Columbian America

40 Pages Posted: 20 Feb 2004 Last revised: 24 Aug 2010

See all articles by Richard H. Steckel

Richard H. Steckel

Ohio State University (OSU) - Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: February 2004


Lack of evidence has been the major obstacle to understanding trends and differences in human welfare over the millennia. This paper explains and applies methods that are obscure to most academics and essentially unknown to the general public. A millennial perspective is best obtained from skeletal remains, which depict not only childhood health conditions but also processes of degeneration that accompany aging and strenuous physical effort. Compiled into an index of health, data from 23 localities as part of a large collaborative project on the Western Hemisphere reveal diverse health conditions for the pre-Columbian population. For reasons not yet understood populations moved over time into less healthy ecological environments. The analysis has implications for understanding environmental determinants of health, the pattern of European conquest, pre-contact population size, investigating human adaptation to climate change, and discovering prime movers of very long-term economic growth.

Suggested Citation

Steckel, Richard H., The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: Health and Nutrition in Pre-Columbian America (February 2004). NBER Working Paper No. w10299, Available at SSRN:

Richard H. Steckel (Contact Author)

Ohio State University (OSU) - Economics ( email )

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