How the disease spurred cultural change


In his classic 1954 book The Gift, anthropologist Marcel Mauss describe an unusual practice of giving gifts among the Maori. It was believed that people who did not return gifts were vulnerable to illness – and possibly death. In this way, the rituals of giving and receiving were linked to beliefs about illness, giving illness a central position in cultural interactions.

In modern Western society, by contrast, many people view infections solely as biological threats to health and well-being rather than as essential elements of belief and cultural change. Some people expect outbreaks of new infectious diseases to be something humans do periodically just need to face.

But disease is not only a threat to our lives, as the Maori example shows. It is a complex and underestimated stimulus of cultural change.

Epidemics are seen as something that we have to deal with periodically.
Ritchie B. Tongo / EPA

Diseases have had a devastating effect on human populations throughout history. If you take the history of infectious epidemics together – from the plague of Pericles in ancient Athens to COVID today – infectious disease has killed more people than all wars combined.

In fact, infectious diseases generally exploit the conditions created by war. During the Napoleonic wars eight times more people in the British military have died from illness than from wounds in combat. And because of the enormous threats posed by these organisms, combined with a lack of historical – and arguably current – understanding of them, we have developed a large number of rituals across cultures to respond to disease.

In some of our earliest recorded stories, the laws surrounding the disease were part of everyday life. For example, among the Hittites, who experienced the height of their power in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) over 3,000 years ago, improperly disposing of the remains of a purification ritual used on a sick person was considered witchcraft – which at the time, as in many cultures, was a serious offense. And today in Bihar, India, many traditional customs related to hygiene, such as those practiced around childbirth, comply with modern medical guidelines.

Purification, or the elimination of substances considered unclean, has also played a central role in many of our mainstream religions, including Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam – and few, if any, modern scientists. , would dispute the importance of personal hygiene in maintaining good health. It is therefore interesting to note that the purification rituals in each of these religions have been associate with risks of infection, ranging from hookworm to herpes.

This highlights the potential for conflict between rituals and scientifically informed behaviors – and creates the illusion that the two are distinct. Yet, rituals can develop because they can help people counteract illness, or as the Maori example shows, help groups of people better socialize.

It’s when the same ritualistic behavior is adopted by people in new environments – or even when the environments in which rituals are performed change – that they can begin to harm. For example, while bathing is essential for preventing many illnesses, performing purification rituals in contaminated water sources, like the Ganges in India, can be extremely dangerous.

Cultural mismatch

When the link between ritualistic practices and health benefits is broken, we might, following economist Nathan Nunn, call behavior that harms us “Cultural mismatches”. And when scientific work helps us identify these lags – like bathing in contaminated water – we need to adjust our practices.

In each of the myriad religions and cultures that have developed and declined over the past millennia, beliefs and rituals requiring a tremendous amount of shared cultural knowledge surround our dealings with disease. People haven’t started using the centuries-old phrase “get a cold“because everyone understood the theory of germs, but because of a popular understanding of the circumstances in which people get sick. And in this case, as in many others, modern scientific research agrees with the popular understanding, highlighting how much we can learn from the science of our ancestors.

The deep relationship between disease and human cultures may, finally, provide insight into the norms around disease and even the dangerous behavior we see around COVID. With low confidence in science in some corners of Western society, people are using unsupported methods to fight SARS-CoV-2. Despite the lack of evidence, some people turned to with garlic, vitamin D or even bleach to protect himself.

Vitamin D supplements
Some people have used vitamin D to protect themselves from COVID.
Sathit / Shutterstock

When you think about it, this kind of reliance on unscientific – or even magical – thought is perhaps less scientific than the behavior we have recorded of Hittites accusing others of witchcraft. At least with the cleansing rituals associated with good hygiene – and unlike the consumption of bleach – the benefits, in the form of disease prevention, have almost certainly outweighed the costs.

Realizing these parallels is an important tool in helping people understand that science doesn’t have to collide with ritual, and really, that science and ritual are inextricably linked. But we need to adjust our incompatible rituals in the light of science – and let go or update those that harm us. Combining the study of disease with that of culture can help us better understand both.


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