Shuar Health and Life History Project

The Project

The Shuar Health and Life History Project, directed by Drs. Larry Sugiyama and Josh Snodgrass of the University of Oregon, is an interdisciplinary collaborative research effort that involves faculty and graduate students from several universities, Ecuadorian health providers, and Shuar colleagues. Dr. Felicia Madimenos of Queens College (CUNY) serves as a senior member of the research team and over the past five years has been instrumental in coordinating field research. The project focuses on Shuar and non-indigenous Ecuadorians (Colonos) from the Morona-Santiago region of Ecuador. For more info on the field site, click here.

Traditionally forager-horticulturalists, Shuar currently experience a wide range of market integration (
i.e., the suite of social and cultural changes that occur with economic development) across their territory. This provides an important opportunity for addressing how economic, social, and dietary changes associated with market integration affect life history tradeoffs, and how those tradeoffs affect health. It allows examination of particular aspects of market integration, predicted life history changes, and actual behavior and health across a wide range of conditions within the same ethnic group. Simultaneously, comparison of Upano Valley Shuar, who are currently more market integrated, with their Colono neighbors provides an opportunity to examine these same variables among people from a different cultural background living under similar socio-ecological conditions. For more information on Shuar, click here.

The Shuar Health and Life History Project is conducted in collaboration with the UCSB
Center for Evolutionary Psychology's Human Universals Project, the Shuar Federation, the Ecuadorian Health Ministry Hospital in Sucúa, Ecuador, as well as several colleagues at universities in the US, including Northwestern University (Dr. Thom McDade and graduate student Paula Tallman), Harvard University (graduate students Heather Shattuck-Faegre & Sam Urlacher), and Yale University (Dr. Rick Bribiescas and graduate student Dorsa Amir). We are also collaborating with Elizabeth Cashdan (University of Utah) on an project funded by the NSF Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (IBSS) competition, entitled "Age Changes and Gender Differences in Spatial Abilities: Testing the Role of Mobility in Three Non-Industrial Societies and in the US" and have a paper in an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with Isabel Scott (Brunel University), Ian Penton-Voak (University of Bristol), and a number of other collaborators on economic development and facial attractiveness.

Goals of the Project
The goals of the Shuar Health and Life History Project are threefold. First, we are investigating how cultural and economic changes in the region affect health and well-being. One component of this research focuses on growth and nutritional status in Shuar children. We have compared Shuar children to other populations and examined risk factors for poor growth. Our results are described in Blackwell et al. 2009.

Shuar Kids
Shuar kids in an Upano Valley community

Another area of research is skeletal health and risk for osteoporosis. This research, led by Felicia Madimenos, has examined the reproductive and lifestyle factors that influence bone mineral density. Results of this research are detailed in several recent papers, including in the Archives of Osteoporosis (Madimenos et al. 2011) and the American Journal of Human Biology (Madimenos et al. 2012).
This research was profiled recently on the Scientific American blog. It provides a nice summary of the article and also describes the Shuar project as “well known within anthropology for its rigorous methodology and outreach with local participants. It’s also an interdisciplinary site that seems to be great for tackling both biological and cultural anthropology questions.” Here's the link. We have a new paper, published in the American Journal of Human Biology, that looks at bone density among Colonos (Madimenos et al. in press).

                        Madimenos bone scan
Felicia Madimenos using a heel ultrasonometer to measure bone mineral density

We are also looking at the effects of social change on other chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and examining the role of physical activity, chronic psychosocial stress, and diet in shaping disease patterns among Shuar. We have a paper in Annals of Human Biology (Liebert et al. 2013) that describes
the effects of market integration (i.e., the suite of social and cultural changes that occur with economic development) on cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, concentrating on how factors like proximity to town and consumption of market foods shape risk markers such as blood pressure, lipids, and glucose. The study provides evidence that market integration among Shuar is not a uniformly negative process but instead produces complex cardiovascular and metabolic health outcomes. That paper recently won the Nick Norgan Award for 2014 as the best paper published in Annals of Human Biology during 2013. 

melissa liebert
                      collecting saliva samples
Melissa Liebert helps a Shuar girl collect a saliva sample for cortisol analysis
Second, we are using the branch of evolutionary biology known as life history theory to better understand the tradeoffs between different branches of immune function in Shuar children, and to use this information to elucidate how energy is allocated to competing priorities such as maintenance, growth, reproduction and physical activity. These findings have been detailed in a series of publications by recent Ph.D. Aaron Blackwell in the American Journal of Human Biology (Blackwell et al. 2010) and PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases (Blackwell et al. 2011). Our most recent research in life history theory employs knemometry (the accurate and reliable measurement of lower leg length) to assess Shuar short-term linear growth. In coordination with detailed body composition, immune function, and lifestyle data, this research aims to provide novel insight into previously unexplored relationships between primary life functions and acute ecological/energetic variables during childhood.

aaron blackwell
                          skinfold and ajhb cover
Aaron Blackwell measuring body fat on a Shuar boy (left); American Journal of
Human Biology cover from November/December 2010 highlighting our work (right)

sam urlacher knemometer
Sam Urlacher using a portable knemometer to measure the lower leg length of a Shuar girl

Further, we’ve investigated relationship between markers of immune function/inflammation (e.g., immunoglobulin E and C-reactive protein [CRP]) and several measures of cardiovascular and metabolic health (e.g., fasting glucose and lipids). This research suggests important tradeoffs between immune responses and different aspects of cardiovascular and metabolic health. This research was recently presented at the annual meeting of the Human Biology Association meetings by graduate student Melissa Liebert (Liebert et al. 201
1). We have also been collaborating with Thom McDade and Paula Tallman on an NSF-funded ecological immunology project that investigates CRP variability within the context of this non-industrialized, high infectious disease environment. The findings are described in a recent article in the American Journal of Human Biology (McDade et al. 2012), and were the subject of a news piece in Science. These results have important implications for research on inflammation and diseases of aging globally, as well as for scientific understandings of the regulation of inflammation. Graduate student Tara Cepon is expanding this research by examining how parasite burden structures life history trade-offs, and how shifting patterns of infectious disease exposure alter risk for allergies and autoimmune diseases. We have a paper in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Parasitology that examines the prevalence and infection intensity of parasitic worms among geographically and economically distinct Shuar communities (Cepon-Robins et al. 2014).
tara cepon
                      preparing fecal samples
Tara Cepon preparing a fecal sample for analysis of parasitic worms

Finally, we seek to provide health information to participants and community partners in order to assist in targeting prevention and treatment efforts. Our research is conducted in collaboration with Ecuadorian medical colleagues and the Shuar Federation.

Larry Sugiyama
Project founder and co-director Larry Sugiyama weighing a baby

We facilitate delivery of health information to participants, the Shuar Federation, and local medical providers in three ways: 1) individual health results are provided and explained to each participant; 2) evidence of pathology is conveyed to local medical workers if the participant desires, and assistance provided with acquisition of treatment if necessary and feasible; and 3) overall research results and interpretation are presented to Ministry of Health colleagues, the Shuar Federation Health directorate, and participant community meetings in order to contribute to public health policy.

Madimenos and Sugiyama received an Engaged Anthropology Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation in 2013 ("Engaging Shuar Communities through Collaborative Health Education: Enhancing Participant Agency in Indigenous Health Research") to work with Shuar communities and conduct a series of workshops, presentations and family days to disseminate information regarding health issues in the community. Check out the write-up of the project on the Wenner-Gren website.

engaged anthropology
A Shuar colleague and local health care provider assisted by community members
present on health and family planning in a rural Shuar community

The research conducted by the Shuar Health and Life History Project is important because it has expanded the view of the extent of health change with market integration (i.e., beyond a focus on chronic disease to a more holistic one that consider osteoporosis, infectious/parasitic diseases, and autoimmune conditions) and has demonstrated that metabolic and cardiovascular effects of market integration are far more nuanced than recognized by previous studies. It has also helped to elucidate the physiological mechanisms and environmental triggers responsible for life history trade-offs, in part through advancements in human biology methods. And, finally, research topics such as the the evolution and environmental calibration of disgust sensitivity demonstrate the utility of conceptual unity and methodological integration across different branches of human evolutionary research—in this case evolutionary psychology and human biology—to elucidate how environmental differences are processed by psychological adaptations to produce variation in fitness-related outcomes.