No billionaires live among the Tsimane people of Bolivia, although some are a bit better off than others. These subsistence communities on the edge of the Amazon also have fewer chronic health problems linked to the kind of dramatic economic disparity found in industrialized Western societies.
For a study in the journal eLife, a research team led by Aaron Blackwell of Washington State University and Adrian Jaeggi of University of Zurich tracked 13 different health variables across 40 Tsimane communities, analyzing them against each person’s wealth and the degree of inequality in each community. While some have theorized that inequality’s health impacts are universal, the researchers found only two robustly associated outcomes: higher blood pressure and respiratory disease.
“The connection between inequality and health is not as straightforward as what you would see in an industrialized population. We had a lot of mixed results,” said Blackwell, a WSU associate professor of anthropology. “These findings suggest that at this scale, inequality is not at the level that causes health problems. Instead maybe it’s the extreme inequality in a lot of modern environments that causes health problems since it’s unlike any inequality we’ve ever had in our evolutionary history.”