Thinking about the problems which the natives of the Americas suffered when they met the Europeans, I wondered how a man of the past could survive in the modern age. Problems could be caused by pollution, different viruses/bacteria, different food (I wouldn't consider social/mental problems, only physical ones).

Of course we can't know it for sure, due to obvious lack of specimens, what I'm asking if there has been any well-thought theory about that, educated guesses, anything based of facts we know and what we can safely assume.

The "past" is left vague on purpose: as long as it's at least 100-200 years old it would be fine — though I can safely guess people from before the Industrial age would suffer much more than those who came after.

  • Note that native Americans died of those diseases because they had been cut off from the rest of the world and had had no contact to the germ. Europe, Asia, and Africa were always quick to share their diseases. (I think the plague is supposed to have jumped from rats to humans somewhere in Asia, and then went to kill half of Europe. When the measles hit Faeroe island after 65 years in 1846, 99.5% of those younger than 65 became infected. Measles also killed more than a 4th of the Hawaiian population in 1848 and a 4th of the inhabitants of the Fiji islands in 1874.) – sbi Apr 8 '12 at 19:28
  • Americans of European descent have marked increase in death rate to small pox as well. It's not as high as the Native Americans, but its higher, so changes like this do happen over a couple hundred years. The Americans innoculated their troops in the Revolutionary War to prevent the British from using germ warfare against us as they had used on the Indians. Theoretically, a person who time traveled from the past from only a few hundred years would be more likely to catch a deadly disease. I can't offer a scholarly reference for you on this subject though. – Razie Mah Feb 17 '14 at 12:34
  • @MarkC.Wallace would you mind putting that to an answer? – o0'. Apr 23 '15 at 14:14

Although I think this question seems to be out of scope of this group, I'd try to answer to make it more fit.

If you are interested in genealogy, and ever had created your family tree, you should have noticed that your ancestor had more children than we do (at least in Western culture). Having 10 children was nothing unusual. If you look deeper, you will notice many of them died being infants, so not so many survived to their adulthood.

Of course the reason is poor condition of past medicine. The development allowed us to live longer, healthier (not only medicine counts, but eg. washing your hands before eating), and thus happier (also because it's easier to get a car or brand-new smartphone).

However, the theory of evolution (in simple) says that the weaker organisms shall die, while stronger will survive and multiply. The theory says it's not good to say "weaker/stronger" or "worse/better". The organism that fits better its environment, is better, but we can't say a crocodile is worse than an elephant only because an elephant is a mammal. They are equal, because they live. If a crocodile is not fast enough to hunt an antelope, it will starve to death. If an antelope is not fast enough to escape, it will be eaten. If they die, they won't multiply and bad genotype will be lost.

The same applies to humans, of course. We could harness the nature using weapons (against bigger animals), tools (against flora) and medicine (against smaller organisms like bacteria or parasites).

The development of religion and ethics made us think that human life is always worth to protect.

This is of course against the evolution theory which says that only good organism "is" protected and the worse should be (I'm sorry) eliminated. The development of medicine made us weaker than people from the past, because bad genotypes were stored because we've invented penicillin, we managed to fight some diseases.

We are less immune if compared not to all people from the past, but to all from the past who managed to reach their adulthood and have children. Probably, statistically, if we take all people who lived then (also those who died young) and compare with all living now, we are healthier. But shouldn't we compare only those who survived?

The development of antibiotics allowed to kill many bacteria, but those which survived, are stronger. They need to be killed with stronger antibiotics, but this also weakens us.

You may also notice, when talking with older people, that they managed to live in stronger climate (eg. colder winters), and they are doing pretty well now, while we have civilization diseases like allergies. We are not able to climb a mountain that 80 yo. person travels twice a day.


Read this article, this one, this one, or this one (I understand some of them are popular science and should not be considered as a scientific source). Maybe you'll google more articles on the same topic.

So answering your question: there are many theories leading to a conclusion, that men from past would manage to live in our times better than we do.

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I cannot provide adequate evidence to prove, but I think that any problems that might result from transportation from the germ infested past to the relatively sterile modern environment would be overwhelmed by improvements in medical techniques.

  • While there are different modern pathogens, and almost every modern pathogen has evolved to defeat our ancestor's immune systems, access to antibiotics and modern medical care that isn't based on humors or planetary alignments would significantly improve outcomes. Heck, just eliminating the use of mercury as a tonic would create vastly better outcomes. OP constrains the time traveller to be more than 100 years ago; during that time the overwhelming majority of humans shifted from rural to urban life. Statistically speaking this will be worse for our time traveller, since cities require more sophisticated immune systems.

  • Different food would include unimaginable access to a variety and diversity of foods and nutrition. The advent of refrigeration, canning and unimaginable improvements in food transport technology have drive the cost/calorie of diverse nutritious food to rock bottom levels. Food diversity correlates with better outcomes.

  • Pollution wouldn't be a problem; air and water are cleaner and better than they were in Victorian London. Smoke and smog in Victorian London were so bad as to obscure the sun and render it impossible to wear white clothing (all clothing was black within 30 minutes of exposure to external air).

  • Dentistry - So very much better now.

  • OP specified that the time traveller was a man. If we assume that the traveller was female, the situation has some more positive indicators. Today maternal mortality is 15/100,000. 100 years ago that was 600/100,000; go back another hundred years and the rate is 1200/100,000.

I'm posting without sources and I shall endure the deserved downvotes

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  • However, for North-Western European stock at least, the now ridiculed and poorly understood practice of leaching (aka phlebotomy) was and remains the only treatment of hemochromatosis; a genetic disorder that affects up to 10% of Irish and Scotch bloodlines and apparently provided resistance to Bubonic Plague. The disbelief of many in the modern medical community nearly cost my father his life twice as young adult, and ultimately did lead to his premature death, though at a ripe age. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 23 '15 at 22:07
  • Agreed; my understanding is that phlebotomy has undergone a renaissance. I believe that we now recognize that it has a stimulating effect on the immune system. – Mark C. Wallace Apr 23 '15 at 22:27
  • Interesting. I hall have to ask my old friend Paul Adams (pauladams.ca and schulich.uwo.ca/about/news/2014/september/…) about that at our next high school reunion. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 23 '15 at 22:36

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