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Seeds of economic health disparities found in subsistence society

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.

Aaron Blackwell.

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.”

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Interim Global Campus vice chancellor for Academic Affairs selected

Michael Sugerman.

Michael Sugerman, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, has been selected as the interim vice chancellor for Academic Affairs for Washington State University Global Campus. The position was left open after Rebecca Van De Vord retired earlier this year.

“I am honored to accept this interim appointment and very thankful to those who considered me for the position,” said Sugerman. “I plan to bring in my own academic background and perspective to help continue the great work WSU Global Campus has done to extend the reach of high-caliber higher education to a wide variety of students around the world.”

WSU has been a leader in online higher education for more than 25 years. It launched its first distance degree program in 1992 and was one of the first public universities to recognize the potential of online education. In 2021, WSU Global Campus was ranked among the nation’s best online undergraduate programs by U.S. News & World Report.

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Prehistoric Pacific Coast diets had salmon limits

Humans cannot live on protein alone – even for the ancient indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest whose diet was once thought to be almost all salmon.

Shannon Tushingham.

In a new paper led by Washington State University anthropologist Shannon Tushingham, researchers document the many dietary solutions ancient Pacific Coast people in North America likely employed to avoid “salmon starvation,” a toxic and potentially fatal condition brought on by eating too much lean protein.

“Salmon was a critical resource for thousands of years throughout the Pacific Rim, but there were a lot of foods that were important,” said Tushingham the lead author of the paper published online on April 8 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. “Native people were not just eating salmon. There’s a bigger picture.”

The authors focus on the limits of salmon, which used to be considered a “prime mover” of Pacific Northwest populations, but their analysis also has implications for the study of historical human nutrition. If their argument is correct, it is unlikely that any human society was fully driven by pursuit of protein alone as their diets had to be more complex.

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A healthy sense of disgust can prevent sickness

You might want to pay attention to those bad, queasy feelings. New research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Feb. 15, suggests that disgust could be the body’s way of helping humans avoid infection.

Aaron Blackwell.

“We found that people with higher levels of disgust had lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers that were indicative of having bacterial or viral infections,” said Aaron Blackwell, a Washington State University associate professor of anthropology and co-author on the paper. “While the study shows that disgust functions to protect against infection, it also showed it varies across different environments, based on how easily people can avoid certain things.”

This study supports the hypothesis that disgust is an evolved human emotion that functions as a disease-avoidance mechanism, helping humans to reduce their exposure to pathogens. The findings also demonstrate that the human disgust response is calibrated to the local costs and benefits of avoidance and infection.

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Breastfeeding mothers produce COVID‑19 antibodies

Breastfeeding women who have COVID-19 transfer milk-borne antibodies to their babies without passing along the SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to a new study.

Beatrice Caffé.
Courtney Meehan.

“The results indicate that it is safe for moms to continue to breastfeed during a COVID-19 infection with proper precautions,” said Courtney Meehan, a WSU anthropology professor and co-author on the study. published Feb. 9 in the journal mBio.

Meehan and WSU graduate student Beatrice Caffé were part of the multi-institutional research team led by University of Idaho nutrition researcher on the project.

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