Contagion and Quarantine, 18th Century BCE Style

Zimri-Lim, the king of the Mari people of 18th century BCE in part of what is now Syria, kept meticulous records in the form of stone tablets. One of these tablets records a lethal disease, which he called a simmum (lesions), that spread across his kingdom, and how he responded. It is a testament to how limited our abilities to respond to pandemics have remained these past 3,000-odd years. According to Carly Silver, writing at Narrative.ly, it is the first documented instance of a quarantine:

He likely based his orders upon seeing this method work in the past. In another missive to Shibtu, Zimri-Lim provided more orders regarding yet another woman who was ill with simmum. In this case, Zimri-Lim ordered Shibtu to sequester this lady, who was named Summudum. “This woman should go stay in one separate building and nobody should go in to see her,” the king wrote. If no separate building was available, another room, as far away from the rest of the royal women as possible, would be the next best option. Distance was key. He exclaimed, “Whether she dies or lives, in either case [other] women might come down with that simmum. May just this woman die!”

In his letter regarding the woman named Nanna, the king noted that not only was she banned from socializing with the other ladies of the palace, but everything she had touched must be avoided as well.

“Give strict orders that no one drink from the cup she uses,” the king wrote to his queen, “and no one sit on the seat on which she sits, and no one lie on the bed on which she lies, so that it should not affect many women.” 

Another remarkable thing about this episode is how well they understood the concept of contagion several millennia before the germ theory of disease:

“It’s interesting that even though the mechanism for the spread of contagious disease was understood differently in Mari than it is today, the fact that a disease could be contagious was recognized,” says Dr. Al-Rashid.

One thing that regularly strikes me when I read ancient history is how we consistently underestimate the knowledge and capacities of ancient peoples. Given how little our pandemic response has improved over thousands of years we should assess our relative advancements with humility.

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