I have heard people say, on multiple occasions, that they think stress is a modern, Western phenomenon. While the psychological phenomenon known as stress has only had a formal name for just over 80 years, knowing when it was first suffered by our ancestors is a daunting task. Was life really better in the past? Is stress an entirely modern phenomenon?
Using modern forensic technology and a decidedly modern understanding of biochemistry, researchers from The University of Western Ontario have taken a look at stress levels in pre-Colombian Peru; their findings are summarized in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science. They found that stress has plagued humanity for at least 1500 years. The researchers were able to get the dead to give up not only their final secrets, but an understanding of their life for a few years before they shuffled off this mortal coil.
When humans get stressed, our bodies release a chemical known as cortisol, which appears in our blood, our urine, and even our hair. Of those three, hair is only one stands the test of over 1000 years of time, and provides a short history of the last years that its owner had. By examining hair strands from 10 individuals at five different dig sites in Peru, the researchers were able to determine how stressed people were, using the levels of cortisol in segments of their hair.
The team found that the time just before the individuals passed away was a stressful one–not an overly surprising result. But the majority of the individuals had lived through stressful periods in the years leading up to their death, suggesting that stress was a regular part of life in the pre-modern period. Perhaps this can be filed under “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Yet, like Ford, I am surprised at how many people assume that life in earlier times was less stressful. This colors our view of our typical reactions to stress — withdrawal, aggression — which we tend to see as anomalous and define as maladaptive. But as the orchid or sensitivity hypothesis suggests, it makes much more sense to view these reactions as adaptive in many situations and maladaptive in other situations. Their value depends on their context. Quitting school and doing a youth gang, for instance, can be a pretty adaptive move considered from a local context — one’s prospects in the immediate neighborhood and social structure — but a lousy move considered from a broader societal context. And all sorts of behaviors that are considered maladaptive within the particular constraints and values of our culture make sense when viewed with more sensitivity to human history.