Personal and Tribal Health and Wellbeing of Maryland’s Native Peoples Prior to European Colonization
Updated: Apr 12
Claude Bowen, President, Archeological Society of Maryland
Thomas Hobbes famously remarked in his classic book of political thought Leviathan that life in pre-modern societies was “…, brutish, nasty, and short.” Archaeological investigation into cultures of indigenous peoples that once lived in Maryland tend to at least verify that for most, especially women, life was short. “Brutish” and “nasty” are adjectives with real but unmeasurable values that are essentially culturally determined.
The visual examination of bone fragments, soft tissue, teeth, and hair may, under some circumstances, be done in order to ascertain traces of those diseases that leave visual markers such as arthritis, tuberculosis, rickets, non-rickets vitamin deficiencies, and issues concerning early growth. The age of an individual can also be estimated by a visual examination of the skeletal remains.
Signs of periods of famine during youth can be determined by visual examination of the teeth. In the near future, archaeologists may be able to determine the diet of individuals with the examination of calculus or plaque from dental remains.
One of the greatest surprises from visual examination of teeth is the possibility that the introduction and widespread use of maize (roughly one thousand years ago) caused unintended and undesirable health issues and social changes.
Among women, signs of child bearing are also available to the researcher by visual examination of the pelvic region. Childbearing practices and dangers can be inferred by such non-destructive examinations as well.
Death was no stranger to the Native peoples of Maryland. It came in forms and types that can be ascertained from the human remains of those peoples as well as from assumptions about the general health of these populations. These assumptions include a high rate of malaria, tetanus, dental infections (becoming more common for all sexes and ages due to the high sugar levels found in maize), and a myriad of infections in other parts of the body.
Helen Roundtree’s and Thomas E. Davidson’s Eastern Shore Indians of Maryland and Virginia, published in 1997 by The University of Virginia Press, list roughly 140 medicinal plants by the ecological zones in which each can be found. The authors are careful to note the sources from which the information was derived. They are also clear that they needed to seek information from sources outside of the study area due to the paucity of ethnographic sources that are Chesapeake specific. Only a very few sources pertain to Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia.
Shamanistic practices were undoubtedly part of individual and group prevention of sickness as well as part of the cure when an individual and/or multiple group members were ill. Shamans are said to have access to the spirit world during altered stages of consciousness; in this case possibly caused by the use of Indian tobacco. The spirits whose aid is requested may be those of ancestors, animals, plants/trees, and those entities considered in the west as non-living. This access is used for a variety of purposes including healing.
One of the most important aspects of life in the Late Woodland period in Maryland is that one was almost never alone; with the possible exception of spirit quests undertaken by individuals. One was born into an extended family. One was also born into a clan. Research by Dr. Martin Gallivan and Dr. Bernard Means suggests that the introduction of circular villages, many of which were surrounded by log fortifications, were the optimal structure for groups that were highly dependent on each person doing their part, particularly in support for both non-intensive and intensive agriculture.
Although the clustering of groups of houses in a manner suggesting the inward focus of clan organization seems to suggest itself at first glance, the circular shape of the village ensures that everyone knows what everyone else is doing. In groups that remained egalitarian in structure, storage pits are found outside of houses where they were open to examination by all in the community.
Modern Non-indigenous Peoples tend to live much of their lives in self-imposed silos denoting class, education, profession, etc. These persons live in a world of self-imposed definitions that set fairly unyielding borders and limitations. For many, the sacred and the spiritual are swept into silos that separate these from all other aspects of modern life. Many Native Americans, however, tend to see the sacred and spiritual in almost all living creatures and non-living creation. This panoply of spirits and spiritual beings are called upon to protect and heal.
Many Maryland Native Americans subscribe to several of these practices and believe that their current practices bear a direct relationship to those in use prior to European colonization. It will be remembered that the same paucity of written records from this period bedevil attempts by Maryland Native Americans to verify these practices as it, likewise, bedevils academics attempting to understand the use of medicinal plants.
In order to fill this lacunae, some have adopted beliefs and practices from tribes that are extant or, at least, better documented than their own. However, none of this is proof that the Maryland Native Americans are substantially in error concerning the practices of their ancestors. The old chestnut that states that “absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence” should be applied and the Indigenous Peoples should be taken at their word concerning the origins of their belief systems and practices.
To conclude, Native Peoples looked at their health and wellbeing from a variety of viewpoints tending to the integration of the individual and then his/her integration into the larger groups within the tribe and then into the entire tribal community. While Native American medicines had a varied efficacy in treating maladies, the social, spiritual, and inter-personal structures found in tribal life played an important and positive role in the health and wellbeing of the community and of the individuals that comprised it.