The Anthropology of Medicine: From Culture to Method

By Lola Romanucci-Ross; Daniel E. Moerman et al. | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

This chapter offers one perspective on the evolution of human nutrition. The mammalian and primate background for human nutrition, the hominid fossil and archaeological evidence, the behavior and diet of human foraging societies, and the development of modern foods and life-styles are treated in some depth. Other aspects of human evolution related to food and nutrition are neglected here, such as a detailed discussion of food taboos, ritual and profane foods, and the effect of seasonal periods of food shortage and abundance on human biology and behavior. Also neglected are connections between food production systems and diseases that are not directly caused by food or diet. Malaria, for example, spread to human populations following the introduction of agriculture in Africa ( Livingstone 1958). Malaria kills more people, even today, than any other inofectious disease, and, consequently, is a potent agent of natural selection and human evolution. There is evidence that some African societies have developed biocultural systems to produce and consume food, especially cassava, that reduce the threat of malaria ( Jackson 1990).

The most pressing nutrition problem of the twentieth century is also barely mentioned. This is the undernutrition and starvation that afflicts three-fourths of the world's children -- nearly two billion people. The toll that this takes on human health, productivity, and happiness is virtually unmeasurable. The cause of this suffering lies in the social economic, and political inequalities between rich and poor; inequalities that the affluent populations are unwilling to change ( Foster 1992; Shields 1995). These and other topics dealing with human nutritional biochemistry, genetics, history, ethnology, and psychology relating to food may be pursued in other sources of reference, including other chapters in this book. The primary message of all of these sources, and this chapter, is that food is central to human life. From a biological perspective food is central because of the essential nutrients needed for growth, repair, and maintenance of the body. From a sociocultural perspective food is central because of the behaviors and beliefs that have evolved around foods and their use. From a medical perspective food is central because of the consequences of diet and food behavior for human health. Combining these discrete perspectives into a single holistic framework leads to the conclusion that human nutrition is a biocultural phenomenon.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Professor Daniel Moerman and Dr. Alan Goodman read earlier versions of this chapter, offering many suggestions to improve the presentation and correct errors of fact. Their help and friendship is much appreciated.

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