Alan Goodman

Weatherhead Resident Scholar


Peasants and Pestilence: Connections Between Past and Present Nutrition and Health

Exploring the connections between biological well-being in the past and present is the focus of Alan H. Goodman's work during his tenure as 1998-99 SAR resident scholar. Peasants and Pestilence: Connections Between Past and Present Nutrition and Health, Goodman's book-in-progress, will first review the history of efforts to link the past and present including Darwinian (or evolutionary) medicine. Secondly, the study will link the past and present via data on shared "stress indicators," such as infant mortality, growth, enamel hypoplasia, and iron deficiency.

Prior "evolutionary medicine" studies often consider contemporary infirmities to be due to discontinuities between the present and the conditions under which humans evolved. Conversely, says Goodman, ethnoarchaeological studies try to use information from the present to make inferences about the past. In his work, Goodman explains, "I critically evaluate both approaches and then present a novel one that links the human biological condition in the past and present through commonly used indicators of physiological stress."

Goodman sees a key challenge of this project to be demonstrating the contemporary utility of studies of the past. "I hope to provide a fresh perspective on the distinctly biocultural phenomena of health and nutrition and to establish the relevance of a biocultural perspective for understanding the human condition in both the past and present." Unlike previous "evolutionary medicine" studies which, in Goodman's view, "emphasize the trees of discontinuities," he will highlight insights gained from a "focus on the forest of overlooked continuities."

As an example, Goodman points to the deadly synergy between infectious disease and malnutrition—a major health threat to children since the Paleolithic era that continues to be responsible for forty percent of all deaths today. "Groups with little access to and control over power and resources suffer the most," observes Goodman. "I explore how these main determinants of infirmities today may help to explain health inequalities in the past."

Goodman is uniquely positioned to undertake this synthesis due to his active engagement in research and teaching on health and nutrition in both past and present groups. In the 1980s, Goodman's research on stress in contemporary populations contributed to the development of a biocultural perspective on stress in past populations. He participated in the large-scale international nutrition studies (Tezonteopan and Solis, Mexico; Kalama, Egypt; and El Progresso, Guatemala) that focused on the functional consequences of infirmities and malnutrition. "This work sensitized me to the degree to which health and nutrition are affected by political-economic processes," reflects Goodman. The common indicators provide a means to extrapolate from infirmities seen today to the consequences of these same infirmities in the past.

"I hope this project will demonstrate the strength of integrating anthropology across the borders between the past and the present, and also across the borders between biology, local culture and ecology, and larger political-economic processes," Goodman states.

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor of Anthropology and Director of the US Southwest/Mexico Program at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts

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