IN 1981, in Nampula, Mozambique, a young Swedish doctor named Hans Rosling was puzzled. More and more people were coming to his clinic suffering from paralysis in their legs. Could it be an outbreak of polio? No. The symptoms were not in any textbook. His puzzlement turned to alarm. With Mozambique slipping into a civil war, might it be chemical weapons? He packwed his wife and young children off to safety and continued his investigations.
The resolution of the mystery sheds light not just on paralysis of the legs, but on one of the biggest economic questions—why do humans have an economy at all?
Let’s return to Mozambique in due course. First, an outback adventure. In 1860, Robert Burke and William Wills led the first European expedition across the interior of Australia. Burke, Wills and their companion John King ran out of food on the return journey. They became stranded at a stream called Cooper’s Creek, unable to carry enough water to cross a stretch of desert to the nearest colonial outpost at the unpromisingly named ‘Mount Hopeless’.
William Wills wrote, ‘We have been unable to leave the creek. Both camels are dead and our provisions are done. We are trying to live the best way we can, like the Blacks, but find it hard work.’
By ‘the Blacks’, Wills meant the local Yandruwandha people, who seemed to thrive despite conditions that were proving too tough for Burke, Wills and King. The Yandruwandha gave the explorers cakes made from the crushed seed pods of a clover-like fern called nardoo—but later Burke fell out with them and, unwisely, drove them away by firing his pistol.
But perhaps Burke, Wills and King had already learned enough to survive? They found fresh nardoo and decided to make their own cakes. At first, all seemed well. The nardoo cakes satisfied their appetites, yet they felt ever weaker. Wills wrote that the nardoo, ‘Will not agree with me in any form. . . The stools it causes are enormous. . . ’ Within a week, he and Burke were dead.
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