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The health of the Maya people in Mesoamerica: what do we know?


“The Maya people descend from the indigenous inhabitants of southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, San Salvador, and Honduras. They are the largest Native American group (6-7 million people) and show the shortest average height of any non-pygmy human population” (1: 679).

The Maya carry a long legacy of political, educational, and socioeconomic deprivation that feeds racism and perpetuates a livelihood of poverty. These socio-political aspects negatively impact on the health of the Maya and bring about further cycles of adverse outcomes. I use a biocultural approach (2) on my research and include inputs from the Maya communities when defining research designs. This post summarises most of the research conducted by my research team. It is not a systematic review of the literature on the health of the Maya, but I hope it becomes a useful resource as a starting point for further research. This is a live post, I welcome comments and suggestions for improvement, and I will be adding information when relevant.

Physical growth

The measurement of physical growth and the accurate measurement of stature and other long bones – such as limb length – are powerful reflexions of the social, political, and moral conditions of a society. James Tanner (b1920-d2010) coined the expression “growth as a mirror of the human condition” and stated that:

“ the growth of children (…) is a wonderfully good gauge of living conditions and the relative prosperity of different groups in a population” (3:96)

Height has been used extensively as an economic variable that reflects health and human capital, especially when other economic indicators are not available.

I started this post with a quote from our most recent paper (1), stating that the Maya are, on average, the shortest non-pigmy people in the world. Being “non-pygmy”, in this context, is an important factor because it means that there are not any known genomic and/or hormonal factors that code for the Maya short stature. However, for a long time, they were considered the “pygmies” of Latin America” (4) . This was damaging because it assumed that being so short was “genetic” and “adaptive”, that everything was fine with this group of people, and nothing needed to change. However, our research showed that, when the Maya started migrating to the US, and benefited from clean drinking water, basic health care, much lower rates of infection load, extended education, enough food, and a peaceful environment, the average stature of the school children increased almost 11cm, in less than one decade. From these, 7cm were due to the increase in the relative length of the legs, in proportion to total stature (5). Genetic/genomic expressions do not change in such a brief period of time, therefore, all evidence suggest that the short stature of the Maya is due to a combination of environmental and epigenetic factors.


I must emphasize, here and now, that no human group “adapts” to poverty, segregation, racism, deprivation, infection, heavy workloads, and shortage of nutrients. They all suffer and many die. The ones who survive to adulthood, do so at the expense of their health and productivity, in some way or other. These are trade-offs that may maximize survival but come at a cost that, sooner or later, will be painfully paid with interest (6).

Very short stature-for-age, or stunting, is an indicator of chronic undernutrition and has long lasting health implications (7). Stunting is usually defined as the individual’s height-for-age being below the 5th percentile of the references, although slightly different cut-off points can be used (8). This makes stunting a sort of moving target. Depending what references and what cut-off points are used, a stunted child may or may not be classified as such. Stunting affects all body systems and, if not curbed early in life, will leave permanent and damaging physical, cognitive, and developmental traits.

In his paper “Nutritional status and physical work capacity”, Spurr (9) summarizes the effects of stunting on physical work capacity, maximal oxygen consumption, aerobic power, heart rate response to exercise, and endurance at submaximal work loads. Other studies have shown that no body system is spared of the nefarious consequences of stunting and that the longer it lingers, the worse the outcomes will be (10-12).

High levels of stunting have been consistently reported, for more than two decades, among the Maya in Belize (13-15), Guatemala (16-19), and Mexico (20-21). Fast and steep increases in height and leg-length, among the Maya migrants to the US, have been mentioned already in this post (5) but this positive outcome needs to be addressed in the context of the whole physical and health changes that characterize this group. Increments in height were accompanied by even steeper increments in weight, and body-mass-index (BMI) (22). The height of the Maya-American children averaged at the 25th percentile of the height of the US children, but their weight and BMI averaged at the 85th percentile. In summary, although the average height of these Maya-American children increased, and the percentage of stunted children decreased, they were still significantly shorter, but much heavier, than the references.

The nutritional dual-burden paradox

The nutritional dual-burden is defined as the coexistence of stunting and overweight/obesity in the same person (individual dual-burden), in the same household (stunted child, overweight/obese mother), or within the same population (8,23,24).

Nutritional dual-burden at the individual level is not common among Maya children, but is frequent among Maya adults, who tend to be very short and very fat. This means that they were stunted children who grew up to become stunted, overweight/obese adults, and accumulate in their bodies the negative effects of both of these conditions (25). Nutritional dual-burdened adult individuals, and specially women, are at higher risk of producing offspring who will also be stunted and, therefore, will perpetuate the short-and-fat legacy throughout generations. This is a non-genomic mechanism that may lead to low birth weight and elevated cardiovascular risk in the subsequent generations (26).

Intergenerational effects of stunting on health and disease

The intergenerational influences hypothesis (IIH) was proposed by Irving Emanuel (27:35) as, ‘‘… those factors, conditions, exposures and environments experienced by one generation that relate to the health, growth and development of the next generation.’’ The IIH has been further discussed elsewhere (26, 28–30), and put in perspective with related concepts such as “foetal programming”, “life history trade-offs”, and developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) (6,31–36). We have tested the IIH with the Maya communities and found out that Maya-Mexican children with a stunted mother were more likely to be stunted by 4-6 years of age (30). Also, in another Maya-Mexican three-generational sample, stunting in children was directly associated with the short stature of the mothers; and the children’s levels of fatness were also directly associated with the short stature of the mothers and the maternal grandmothers (20,37).

Stunting, muscle mass, and energy expenditure

Associations between stunting, body composition, and energy expenditure (or work capacity) have been studied for decades, showing that stunted individuals have less muscle, and much less energy for voluntary physical activity (9,11,12,38,39). In the last 10 years, this area of research has benefited considerably due to the commercialisation of accurate portable technology that allows free-living assessment of all components of energy expenditure, metabolism, and respiratory and cardiac function. Usually, the sample sizes are small and the studies tend to focus on only one or two parameters, making it difficult to establish more complex associations.

We conducted a study with a sample of 37 Maya-Mexican children and found that a lower height-for-age z-score, as a continuous variable (but not stunting as a categorical variable) significantly predicted lower activity energy expenditure (40). This study was innovative because the children wore a combined heart-rate and uni-axial accelerometer for 7 days (The Actiheart), but it was challenging because the device, when used in the field, performed differently than under laboratorial conditions (41), and required a much greater deal of maintenance than initially predicted. The continuous advance of portable, wearable technology, for the estimation of energy expenditure and other physiological parameters, is promising. This line of research must be pursued to further disentangle the associations between stunting, energy expenditure, body composition, and other health outcomes. The state of Yucatan has one of the highest rates of childhood stunting and, at the same time, the highest mortality rates for diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and stroke in Mexico as a whole. Among these, the Maya – being the poorest of the poor – tend to suffer more than the rest of the population (42).

Nutrition and globalization

The nutritional patterns of the Maya, in the last 20 years, have moved away from a diet high in fibre, vegetables, and pulses to a globalised diet with a very high content of salt, sugar, fat, processed foods, and carbonated beverages. In a study conducted in 2013 (43) the most common diet among the Maya in Mexico was characterized by a low consumption of fruits and vegetables, a medium consumption of pork, eggs, oil and lard, and a high consumption of soda and whole milk. The Maya health and culture has deteriorated as a result of this nutritional transition which is affecting the physical growth and health of the Maya families. The summary illustrates clearly the shifts in food consumption, and emphasises the role of globalization in the exacerbation of negative health outcomes among the Maya (44).

A photo that summarizes it all

The photo below was taken in 2010, in the Colonia San Jose Tecoh, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. I am with a Maya grandmother and her 8 year old granddaughter. In this photo, I am the tallest person which is very unusual for me, because I am only 159cm (5ft 1inches). This photo illustrates the height gap of the Maya much better than any written description. Therefore, I will say no more!



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  38. Barac-Nieto M, Spurr GB, Lotero H, Maksud MG, Dahners HW. Body composition during nutritional repletion of severely undernourished men. Am J Clin Nutr. 1979;32(5):981–91.
  39. Spurr GB. Physical activity and energy expenditure in undernutrition. Prog food nut sci. 1990;14:139–92.
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  41. Wilson H, Dickinson F, Griffiths P, Bogin B, Varela-Silva MI. Logistics of using the Actiheart physical activity monitors in urban Mexico among 7- to 9-year old children. Am J Hum Biol. 2011;23:426–8.
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Deprived of Love

On Thursday, 19 May, I wrote a post for The Conversation. It was about child health, orphanages, love and the lack of it. As of this morning more than a quarter of million people have read it. I am humbled. My colleague and friend Patrick Clarkin reposted it on his blog and added further notes on how love is a key ingredient for health. I am starting to answer some emails and comments arising from the article. I will blog more on this after having a more accurate idea of the nature of the comments. Thanks to everyone reading my post. Thanks Patrick for adding to it.

Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

Human biologist (and friend) Inês Varela-Silva  wrote the following essay: “Can a lack of love be deadly?”It’s currently the most-read post at “The Conversation.” As she wrote:

“Deprivation comes in many shapes and forms: lack of food, diseases, maltreatment, and child abuse are some of the harms that come to mind. However, I would argue that deprivation of love can be just as deadly.”

I think she’s right. We take it for granted that kids need nutrients and a life relatively free from infection. But perhaps we sometimes overlook the idea that psychosocial deprivation is also inherently stressful. Please read the rest of her essay, where she discusses some of the history behind this research, human resilience and the ability to overcome early deprivation, and the personal side of things with the adoption of her daughter. 


The Power of Love

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Should papers be retracted if one of the authors is a total asshole?

This post from Retraction Watch has made me laugh out loud. For a Friday evening that says a lot.
Quoting them and in total agreement… “The scientific community needs to be on its toes about who (or what) is writing the papers they publish, to help keep merde out of the literature”.

Retraction Watch

no cursing Image via Chris James.

When science writer Vito Tartamella noticed a physics paper co-authored by Stronzo Bestiale (which means “total asshole” in Italian) he did what anyone who’s written a book on surnames would do: He looked it up in the phonebook.

What he found was a lot more complicated than a funny name.

It turns out Stronzo Bestiale doesn’t exist.

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On vigorous scientific debates, witch hunts, and the tragedy of suicide

There is an urgent need of rethinking the way we do science.

Retraction Watch

logoThe suicide earlier this week of Yoshiki Sasai, one of the scientists who worked on the now-discredited STAP stem cell work, was a startling and sobering reminder to the research community and the public that misconduct can take a heavy human toll – even on people like Sasai, whom by all accounts only had the misfortune of working with a dishonest colleague.

The tension surrounding this case and others was well-captured by University of California, Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen, who himself lost his father, also a scientist, to suicide in 1987 in a case that he said had haunting parallels to Sasai’s:

Obviously, fraud is a terrible thing. Nothing provides as deep an existential threat to the scientific enterprise than making up data. But as bad as it is, there is something deeply ugly about the way the scientific community responds to misconduct. We need to deal swiftly with fraud when it is…

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Developmental Plasticity and the “Hard-Wired” Problem

This is a great post by Patrick Clarkin that I am reblogging here on Science itches. One day I will find the time to really start blogging regularly but until that day comes, I hope you enjoy Patrick’s word sof wisdom

Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

“Development is the missing link between genotype and phenotype, a place too often occupied by metaphors in the past … But a strong emphasis on the genome means that environmental influence is systematically ignored. If you begin with DNA and view development as “hard-wired,” you overlook the flexible phenotype and the causes of its variation that are the mainsprings of adaptive evolution.” (Mary Jane West-Eberhard, 2003: 89-90)

“Genes, unlike gods, are conditional. They are exquisitely good at simple if-then logic: if in a certain environment, then develop in a certain way… So here is the first moral of the tale: Don’t be frightened of genes. They are not gods; they are cogs. (Matt Ridley, 2003: 250)

Plasticity: actor Christian Bale at two points in time. Same genes, different phenotypes.Plasticity: actor Christian Bale at two points in time. Same genes, different phenotypes.

In his book The Triple Helix, Richard Lewontin told the story of the molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Sydney…

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