Julia Ridgeway-Diaz: “Tracking Health and Stress in the Shuar of Ecuadorian Amazonia”

A Shuar family with the returns of their daily foraging (photo courtesy of Shuar Health and Life History Project).
A Shuar family with the returns of their daily foraging (photo courtesy of Shuar Health and Life History Project).

Westernization is a term fraught with controversial associations, but it is important to remember that it brings with it both good and bad consequences. Westernization can bring changing gender roles, increased access to quality health care, and more contact with the global community. However, it can also bring environmental and cultural degradation and the “diseases of civilization.” It has already been established that market integration—a concept synonymous with westernization—in indigenous Latin American populations has brought increased incidence of obesity and diabetes. Funded in part by the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies (CLLAS), new research conducted by the UO Department of Anthropology’s Shuar Health and Life History Project may show that westernization in the indigenous Shuar people of Amazonia also brings stress, the notorious “mental state of civilization.” The Shuar Health and Life History Project is an interdisciplinary and inter-institutional project that works in collaboration with the Ecuadorian Health Ministry and the officials of the Shuar Federation, the semi-autonomous government of the Shuar people. The Shuar are an indigenous forager-horticulturalist group in southeastern Ecuador, an area undergoing rapid market integration.

I spent the summer of 2010 exploring a new health marker that can be used to track stress levels in the Shuar as they market integrate. As a recipient of a CLLAS Graduate Student Summer Grant and a second-year master’s student in the UO Environmental Studies Program, I worked under the direction of Shuar Project leaders Dr. Josh Snodgrass and Dr. Larry Sugiyama. I ran experiments in Dr. Snodgrass’s laboratory, testing the levels of Epstein-Barr virus antibodies in blood samples collected from the Shuar over the past two years. Found in 95 percent of the world’s population, Epstein-Barr virus is normally kept under control by the immune system. High levels of antibodies are a reaction in the body to high levels of the virus, the result of a depressed immune system that is in turn the result of psychosocial stress.

It is important to track psychosocial stress in transitioning populations because stress is closely related with overall health and is expected to increase as a result of the important changes that come along with cultural shifts. We collected blood samples from communities that can be placed in three categories: most market integrated, moderately market integrated, and least market integrated. Initial data analysis suggests that the levels of psychosocial stress are highest among the most market-integrated communities. This is an important finding because it adds another variable to the calculus of the health changes that indigenous people experience as they westernize. This calculus is already complex. Studying the health of transitioning indigenous populations is a large undertaking, and only through consistent research and support from organizations like CLLAS will we find new answers and learn to ask new questions.

—Julia Ridgeway-Diaz is a second-year master’s student in the interdisciplinary Environmental Studies graduate program. She studied English and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Rice University in Houston and enjoys travelling to Argentina to visit family.