Thanksgiving Day is a wonderful tradition here in the United States, because it commemorates the bounty it has been our good fortune to receive. All people, indeed all creatures, struggle to succeed over their contemporaries, but it has been our astonishing luck to benefit from almost every encounter. This day has been set aside because our founding fathers at Plymouth colony survived because the native people living here had just died. Their crops were in the ground or stored in the bins already for these castoffs from England to use to survive the winter. The Indians had died of epidemic disease which earlier European traders had accidentally given them along with desirable trade goods. The local people had little or no resistance to diseases which the Europeans accidentally brought along with their goods. The diseases were originally from animals which had been domesticated in the old world. All animal species have their own disease species which via natural evolutionary processes learn to adapt to one another. The disease organism doesn’t want to kill its host, because it needs its host for its own food, or other things. What is best for the disease species is to consume only enough of the host’s resources to thrive and reproduce. The Europeans from the Old World of domesticated species had acquired immunity and a relative balance with their animals’ diseases. Cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, goats, ducks, geese and many more all have their unique diseases — who knows, perhaps each of them has over a hundred diseases. I make that guess from looking at the list of diseases humans can have, and assume the other species have similar numbers of diseases which they have adapted to. Not all of these diseases can transfer to humans, but many can and do, and the Old World people had adapted to them. They did this with a lot of dying of their ancestors, leaving only those who just happened to have some genetic adaptation, or perhaps an epigenetic susceptibility to a temporary adaptation. Whatever the ability was that accounted for the visiting Europeans who came before the Pilgrims, they had it and the natives didn’t. Perhaps any given disease, say smallpox, killed half a native population, but then along comes measles, mumps, flu, diphtheria, cholera, and many more. Each of these diseases if it came alone might have killed only a small percentage, but when one after another, after another and yet another hit a group of people then weakened by the previous batch of horrible disease, they simply all died.
That was the world the Pilgrims entered. For them it was wonderful, because they entered an already cultivated garden of Eden. The bounty was given to them for free. And they knew it! (See: 1491 – New revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann page 55) So, why shouldn’t they be thankful? They didn’t understand why they were given this garden so they thanked the only force they believed could bring this bounty to them. They thanked God. But, what was God in this case, but a very long list of horrors that had befallen their ancestors, yet let their direct ancestors survive to reproduce? And now all of those horrors befell the natives at once. The natives died and perhaps they, as individuals, were lucky they could only die once, because with tens and perhaps hundreds of Old World diseases coming their way, if one didn’t get them the next one would. If the diseases had been brought over, say one every twenty years, and it spread through the native population, perhaps they could have built up their genetic resistance, but it came as a flood sweeping nearly all before it away.
Those of us who live upon the bounty do still give thanks. We do so on this holiday by eating native American turkeys, native American corn, native American cranberries, and native American squash. We give thanks that we have so much, and we sometimes feel a little guilt when we think of the native Americans who have been displaced, but I have never heard of anyone giving thanks to the multitude of our own personal ancestors and their close relatives who died from Old World disease, that through their unintended and inadvertent deaths made our Thanksgiving possible. It is easy to say, “Thank God for this wonderful dinner”, but those are only words we say.
Remember the suffering of all our predecessors and provide something to the future!
My friends Bonnie and Brian sent me this video link to My life as a turkey while I was writing this post. It is a wonderful insight into the the life of turkeys before we converted them into domesticated food items. Watch it and you will never feel the same about turkeys.