You won’t get too many arguments from me, that living today is seriously stressful and certainly not the recipe for a long and healthy life but….
Modern society is not the only society troubled by stress.
Building Macho Picheu was stressful
The term stress was only invented in the 1930s, but just because people didn’t have a name for it, doesn’t mean they didn’t experience it.
Archaeologists have stepped back in time, to discover that building Macheau Pitchea was no different from any modern day building project, is produced a whole lot of “grey” hairs.
Okay, the hairs themselves were still black, but they were chock full of the stress hormone cortisol.
Hair records your stress
Cortisol is the principal stress hormone. Any time you life is turned upside down, cortisol flood’s the system – it ends up in your blood, saliva, urine and hair.
Dying is cleary a rather stressful situation, so your final days are likely to reflect elevated cortisol levels. But since the hair’s on your head have been around for a bit, hair samples can provide a sort of stress timeline.
The longer the hair, the further back the stress record extends.
The principle has been used to document how stress contributes to having a heart attack.
Digging up the dirt on stress
The archaeological team opted to go beyond looking at the pottery and tools of ancient Peruvians, to explore the levels of stress experienced by residents of various archaeological sites.
Hair samples were gathered from 10 individuals, at five different archaeological sites in Peru. The archaeological time line extended from 550 to 1532 A.D.
As expected, many of the individual showed high stress levels right before death, but the hair samples revealed life was not a bed of roses for these ancient people.
The majority of hair samples showed that there had been good times and bad times, in the run up to their final demise. Cortisol levels fluctuated from high to low and back to high. Stress was part of life, pretty much like it is now.
What caused the stress ?
Cortisol levels don’t reflect much about the stressor, just that stress is present, so we can’t really tell if the Peruvians stress troubles were caused by
- Noisy neighbours
- A lack of collaboration i.e. a nagging wife, a broken heart or an overbearing boss
- A raging infection or noxious fumes from an open fire
- Too much good food or probably more likely, too little
But stress was NORMAL in ancient Peru.
Don’t use stress as an excuse
Stress is normal now too – don’t fall into the trap of blaming your troubles on stress, deal with it.
Do what you can to “Dial down stress”Assessing individual systemic stress through cortisol analysis of archaeological hair. Journal of Archaeological Science (2009) 37(4):807-812. Emily Webb, Steven Thomson, Andrew Nelson, Christine White, Gideon Koren, Michael Rieder, Stan Van Uum.
Interested in learning more about the chemistry behind stress ?
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