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Am J Phys Anthropol. 2004 Apr;123(4):371-89.

Illness, injury, and disability among Shiwiar forager-horticulturalists: implications of health-risk buffering for the evolution of human life history.

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Department of Anthropology and Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon 97403, USA.


Human life history is distinguished by long lifespan, delayed reproduction, intergenerational asymmetric benefit transfers from adults to juveniles and between adults, and a large brain able to engage in unprecedented levels of learning, reasoning, and insight. The evolution of these traits depends on relatively low human mortality. Understanding why humans have low mortality is therefore critical for understanding the evolution of key human traits. One explanation is that the evolution of food provisioning during periods of health crisis reduced mortality. This hypothesis turns on health risk having posed a significant adaptive problem that could be effectively buffered by healthcare provisioning. Unfortunately, the frequency, duration, and fitness effects of temporary disability are difficult to estimate based on osteological evidence alone, and systematic ethno-biological research on these issues among extant small-scale societies with little access to Western medical care is lacking. Here I present data on 678 injuries and illnesses suffered by 40 Shiwiar forager-horticulturalists, based on physical evidence and informant reports. A subsample of 17 individuals provided data on incidence and duration of disability for 215 pathological incidents. Results indicate that injury and illness occur frequently across the lifespan. Most living individuals have suffered temporarily disabling health crises likely to have been lethal without provisioning. The fitness effects of surviving these episodes are high, suggesting that the Shiwiar population structure and lifeway are dependent on infrequent extended provisioning to temporarily disabled individuals, and that provisioning of aid during healthcare crises effectively lowers mortality in this small-scale society.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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