BOSTON—In a startling discovery that sheds new light on the link between the earliest American colonists and their modern descendants, researchers at Boston University announced Thursday they have traced the U.S. obesity epidemic back to a single heavyset Mayflower passenger.
Through an exhaustive analysis of genetic samples, as well as diary entries, ship logs, and tattered medical records from the early 17th century, a multidisciplinary research team has reportedly determined that the majority of severely overweight individuals in the United States today share key genetic markers and unhealthy eating behaviors that appear to be passed down from a 307-pound Plymouth Colony settler named Jeremiah Alden.
“At a time when the average European male weighed perhaps 135 pounds, Jeremiah’s tremendous size was an exceedingly rare trait, which is indicated by contemporary accounts of him as a ‘startling behemoth’ and ‘wide-across as three men together,’” biologist Allan Fortner said of the man who, by fathering nine portly children, is believed to have introduced a predisposition toward slow metabolism and sedentary personal habits into the American genome. “After carefully sequencing the DNA of his remains, we have pinpointed this hefty Pilgrim’s appearance in the New World as the single most crucial event giving rise to modern Americans’ elevated BMIs, tendency toward overeating, and aversion to exercise.”
“We would certainly not have a situation in which 62 percent of the U.S. population is either overweight or obese had this man simply stayed in England,” he added.
Noting that early American colonies were frequently plagued by starvation, researchers said Alden’s sheer caloric intake—a 17th-century journal claimed he “consum’d three-and-twenty biscuits every noonday”—allowed the separatist Puritan to thrive despite the odds, resulting in a selective genetic advantage. The study’s authors also confirmed that the United States’ high rates of Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, knee joint pain, and sleep apnea are almost solely a result of this one enormous man’s contributions to the gene pool.
Researchers said they were first inspired to study Alden after reading several passages in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, which described the settler as a “slothfull fellow who erupteth through his waistcoat with girth” and “labours hard for his breath, the swett allways upon his crimson-hued face.” Though he counted for only one of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers, logs kept during the voyage claimed he had “near devowered rations set a-side for one man’s intire voyage” before the ship had even left port in England, enraging his gaunt and scurvy-prone fellow travelers.
“Upon their arrival in the New World, the Pilgrims quickly got to work laying the foundation for a new civilization, but it appears Jeremiah just sort of hung out on board for a few days, nibbling on salt pork,” historian Karen Harmon said. “And once he disembarked, he made quick work of the colony’s stores of grain and dried provisions, leading to around half the settlers dying in that first winter.”
Citing records that indicate Alden required “the skines of seven otters to cloathe wholy his great bodily expance,” the research team suggested that his excess reserves of adipose tissue allowed him—and the genes he would pass along—to survive until spring.
Numerous artifacts provide further evidence of Alden’s rotundness, including a contemporary woodcut that depicts a nearly spherical man, the buckles on his doublet straining to contain his frame as he stands among a group of rail-thin Pilgrims and Native Americans. Additional documents also describe first Thanksgiving in 1621, at which, according to one account, this ancestral forerunner of U.S. obesity “did go back for double, treble, and quadreble servings” of wildfowl and maize.
“Mr. Alden hath the breadth of many men & eats as such, w’out nary a mite of shame, his wide, flesh-ly hands etern’ly imparting morsels unto his happy mouth,” reads an entry from the diary of Mayflower captain Christopher Jones. “The savages cry at his immense appearance, be-lieving they that he is some terrible monster.”
“This morn we went to gather straw fit for thatch and return’d to finde Jeremiah eating merrilee of our common victuals, which did anger us plenty,” it continues. “Yet he merely shrugged & smiled in a bashfull way, in accordance with his gener’ly joyous & agreeible comportment.”
The researchers stressed, however, that their discovery of a single obese progenitor should not be used as a scapegoat by modern Americans for their poor dietary habits and dangerously high body masses.
“While this is a significant discovery, we must not blame Jeremiah Alden alone for today’s pervasive obesity problem,” Fortner said. “He certainly set our nation on the wrong path in terms of excessive weight and unhealthy food choices, but we must all take responsibility for our own health. Otherwise we might end up just like Jeremiah, who died of a heart attack at age 46 after being accused of witchcraft.”