A Primitive Tribe Doesn’t Get Modern Diseases

Research on the [indigenous Tsimane of northern Bolivia] led to the finding in 2009 that cardiovascular disease is probably an ill of modern societies. Studies of the group also provided the most conclusive data supporting the idea that high levels of physical activity drastically reduce the risk of diabetes, obesity and hypertension.

There have been 42 studies with results published, and at least 33 more are under way. “This is the most productive research site in anthropology today,” Ray Hames, an anthropologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said.

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky in the NYT.

Comments (9)

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  1. Ender says:

    This study confirms what most people probably believe. Little excercise and an increase in poor diet choices lead to cadiovascular problems.

  2. Robert says:

    Studies of the group also provided the most conclusive data supporting the idea that high levels of physical activity drastically reduce the risk of diabetes, obesity and hypertension.

    Exercise prevents diabetes, obesity, and hypertension?
    Color. Me. Surprised.

  3. seyyed says:

    It’s no wonder that western society, with its emphasis on sitting and working for long hours, is more likely to be overweight and at risk for weight-related diseases. are 75 studies necessary to prove this theory?

  4. Buster says:

    The good news: if you’re a member of a hunter-gatherer tribe you won’t die of Western diseases like heart disease or cancer.

    The bad news: Western diseases are essentially diseases of old age. Primitive tribes don’t get these diseases because: 1) they work too hard without adequate food to get them; 2) they don’t live long enough to get our diseases of old age.

  5. Baker says:

    Good research, but again the problem is how do we motivate with out be paternalistic?

    Sounds like a pretty drastic change to society.

  6. Jordan says:

    Seyyed, that long hours are to blame. The U.S. is only barely above the OECD average.

    Take a look at annual hours per workers, and compare all the countries above the OECD average to the OECD data on obesity.

  7. Alex says:

    It’s always worth a chuckle when you relaize how much work scientists put into proving things that most people already accept.

  8. Linda Gorman says:

    Another entry in the “all our ills come from modern civilization” sweepstakes. Here’s some context based on 20 minutes on the internet:

    From a PubMed abstract on the Tsimane: “Villages in the remote forest and riverine regions show 2-4 times higher mortality rates from infancy until middle adulthood than in the acculturated region. While there was little change in mortality for most of the life course over the period 1950-1989, overall life expectancy at birth improved by 10 years from 45 to 53 after 1990.”

    And they do have high blood pressure. From another abstract: “We measured blood pressure longitudinally on 2248 adults age ≥ 20 years (n=6468 observations over 8 years). Prevalence of hypertension was 3.9% for women and 5.2% for men, although diagnosis of persistent hypertension based on multiple observations reduced prevalence to 2.9% for both sexes. Mixed-effects models revealed systolic, diastolic, and pulse blood pressure increases of 2.86 (P<0.001), 0.95 (P<0.001), and 1.95 mmHg (P<0.001) per decade for women and 0.91 (P<0.001), 0.93 (P<0.001), and -0.02 mmHg (P=0.93) for men, substantially lower than rates found elsewhere. Lifestyle factors, such as smoking and Spanish fluency, had minimal effect on mean blood pressure and no effect on age-related increases in blood pressure. Greater town proximity was associated with a lower age-related increase in pulse pressure."

    Don't know if the hypertension standards used are same as for US, or whether they have a sample that's representative of the population, but NHANES suggests US hypertension prevalence of 10.5 percent in 18-44 year olds in the early 2000s. Keep in mind that there are big variations by racial group, suggesting genetic factors also matter.

    Apparently smoking doesn't affect Tsimane hypertension. Does this mean that the bad effects of smoking are also an offshoot of modern society?

  9. Lucy Hender says:


    I was just thinking the same thing. Perhaps doing research to discover facts that we actually know nothing about would be a better way to invest their time and resources.

    Nonetheless, this should work as a little reminder for those of us who take exercising for granted…