May 17, 2013
Tagged: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Anthropology

Eat Your Phytochemicals: Lessons Learned from the Waorani

News, Publication


By Charity Shumway

Professor Douglas London with Waorani tribal members
Adelphi Assistant Professor Douglas London, Ph.D., with Waorani hunter-gatherer tribal members on the Yasuni River in Amazonian Ecuador

Imagine you are traveling up a tributary to the Amazon in a canoe. A spear comes flying at you from the jungle along the banks. It hits you, skewering your shoulder or passing through your side. Let’s say you survive the initial injury. That, of course, isn’t the end of your worries. Your next concern: infection.

But not if you are a member of the Waorani tribe, a group of hunter-gatherers living in a remote region of Ecuador. “They don’t get infected, which people would say is impossible,” says medical anthropologist and Adelphi Assistant Professor Douglas London, Ph.D., who has spent the last four years studying the Waorani’s health and diet. “Basically, Waorani, when they get wounded, the spear goes in one side, comes out the other, they chop the two ends of the spear off, the spear stays there for a while, and it eventually falls out. Never gets infected. Never gets swollen. Nothing happens to them. If it was us, we’d get a staph infection.”

This is far from the end of the wonders of Waorani health. Dr. London’s observations and medical tests—taken over a year while living with the Waorani—showed that they have almost no chronic diseases and no infectious diseases (other than the few introduced by outsiders). Their eyesight doesn’t deteriorate over time. And, notably, their body temperature is consistently 1.35 degrees (Farenheit) lower than the range of human body temperature we think of as normal. What explains all this?

Diet is Destiny

Along with the Waorani, Dr. London also studied a neighboring tribe of Quichua, who are subsistence farmers, to compare the two groups. “You have the same environment, the same microbes, but one group doesn’t get sick and the other group does,” Dr. London says. “The only big difference is diet.”

In particular, Dr. London believes, the answer is the phytochemicals in the food the Waorani eat. Phytochemicals, or plant chemicals that are used in self-defense by flora, and that often have medicinal and pharmaceutical properties, are the other side of food,” says Dr. London. “At least 10 percent of the dry weight of many plant foods we eat is made up of phytochemicals,” he continues. “Because there are so many varieties of them, it can be overwhelming, so most of the time we focus on a small number of nutrients, which gives a distorted idea of what food is.”

Phytochemicals are the reason many modern medicines work, explains Dr. London. “We have receptors in our bodies that are designed to take in plant chemicals,” he says. “Modern pharmaceuticals use the receptors that originally evolved for phytochemicals. Without those receptors, many drugs would just pass right through us.”

The secret to the Waorani’s health, Dr. London’s research shows, is eating wild foods, mostly fruit and meat more typical of the way humanity ate prior to the advent of agriculture, which provide them with a balance of phytochemicals.

Dr. London spent a full year cataloging the entire food systems of both the Waorani group and the Quichua group, photographing and documenting all the foods they consumed. “The Waorani have a huge variety of fruits, maybe 80 different fruits that they eat,” Dr. London says. “And they’re seasonally rotated, so they’re getting their phytochemicals, but they’re not getting overwhelmed by eating the same one day in and day out. They’re constantly changing.”

In addition to fruit, the Waorani eat large amounts of meat. “They eat a pound, a pound and a half, of meat a day,” says Dr. London. “You’re supposed to get protein poisoning, it’s supposed to be impossible to eat that much, but that’s what they do.” Just as the fruit has medicinal benefits for the Waorani’s health, so, too, does the meat. “Because the animals eat the same plants, they become a source of phytochemicals as well,” explains Dr. London.

The neighboring Quichua tribe eats typical agricultural crops, including vegetables. In contrast, says Dr. London, the Waorani eat no vegetables. “In fact, when you give a Waorani a vegetable, they get nauseous; they’ll vomit,” he says. The reason, he explains, is toxic phytochemicals in vegetables. “Fruits evolved with beneficial phytochemicals to entice humans and other animals to eat them,” says Dr. London, “but leaves and stalks developed toxic phytochemicals to protect themselves from being eaten.

“The Waorani have a sensitivity to the smell and taste of phytochemicals that we’ve lost,” Dr. London continues. “We can tell a little bit when something is bitter, but the Waorani have a vocabulary for bitter that far exceeds ours. We have maybe one word. They have maybe twenty.”

Braving Snakes to Study Isolated Hunter-Gatherers

Prior to Dr. London’s research, it is believed, the Waorani tribe and their diet had never been studied. Part of the reason for this is their remoteness. “The Waorani live in an unmarked region of Ecuador, and very few people even know they exist,” Dr. London says. Another factor in their isolation is their hostility toward outsiders. “They’re still a warrior group,” explains Dr. London. In fact, this is one reason the distinctions between the diets of the Waorani and the neighboring Quichua were so clear. “The Quichua are afraid of the Waorani, and so the two groups do not mix,” Dr. London says.

Just as in our imagined scenario, Dr. London arrived in a canoe on the banks of the Waorani’s river. Alarmingly, but not unexpectedly, the threatening spears were far from imaginary. Fortunately for Dr. London, the son of the chief had had some contact with outsiders, and after hours of waiting and negotiating, Dr. London was allowed to safely join the Waorani on land. Initially, he was allowed to spend only a few days, but after several years of repeated contact, Dr. London was invited to stay. He spent a full year camping with the Waorani, braving insects and poisonous snakes. He plans to return this summer to continue his research. “It was a little risky,” Dr. London says modestly, “but if you want to find one of the few hunter-gatherer groups that are left, you have to go to very, very isolated places.”

This piece appeared in the Adelphi University Magazine Spring 2013 edition.


Tagged: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Anthropology