Dr. Nicole Morgan, CACOR Board of Directors, explains:
There are many types of genocides. I tentatively named this one inside-genocide, the silent one all the more lethal that is brought by good intentions. The most striking example can be found among the the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands, with some of the highest levels of obesity, and deadly diabetes in the world. Some of the highest levels of obesity in the world are found in the island populations of Oceania. Rates of obesity as high as 75% have been reported in Nauru, Samoa, American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tonga and French Polynesia. The factors for this epidemic of obesity are a dramatic decrease in physical activity and a dependence on a Western diet. The traditional foods of the islands such as fresh fish, meat and local fruits and vegetables have been replaced by rice, sugar, flour, canned meats, canned fruits and vegetables, soft drinks and beer.
This is the tip of an iceberg which actually started when… icebergs roam the world (please forgive me my propensity to terrible metaphors. They make my long thorough research days bearable).
This is an excerpt of my book to come on the epidemic of obesity starting in the ice age (as a pretext to reflect on the Sapiens and its environment).
The rapid drastic changes in diet have proven too much for a part of humanity, namely for those carrying a thrifty genotype who have been isolated and kept feeding habits in harmony with their environment. Let’s recall the thrifty genotype was born to allow bridging between famine and period of plenty. It was a survival tool never designed for permanent abundance, and kept dormant through the millennia by the hunting gathering way of life. “Under modern conditions where food is plentiful and high in energy, and levels of activity are low, the thrifty genotype leads to obesity and a vicious cycle of increasing insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia which eventually lead to…NIDDM….” In fact we are not talking just obesity here but ravaging diabetes, death of individuals and eventually death of an entire culture.
We are not talking either about huge gain weight. In some cases “modest weight gains seem to impact universally on diabetes rates, particularly if there is intra-abdominal fat accumulation, e.g. in Samoans (Galanis et al 1995). Indians and other groups are particularly susceptible to intra-abdominal fat increases for reasons that are explored elsewhere, e.g. James (1995a) and McKeigue (1996)….The risk of diabetes increases with modest weight gains from a BMI of less than 25..and rates escalate markedly above a BMI of 30, so there is now epidemiology validity in using BMI classification universally. Insomecases. We are talking about a cultural specific allergy to some of our most common food and drinks. The insensitiveness of authorities towards this issue has undoubtedly contributed to increase alcoholism among natives in North America. Under the cover of an easy universalism, their devastating intolerance to alcohol is perceived as general alcoholism, which it is not. “Diabetes was uncommon among Native Americans before World War II; yet today almost half of the adult population in some Native American tribes have diabetes. Although there is substantial variation across tribes, only Alaska Natives were found to have a prevalence of diabetes lower than the prevalence in Caucasians. The epidemic of NIDDM (Non insulin dependent diabetes mellitus) has been paralleled by an epidemic of obesity”
The process has been painfully observed with the Pimas. Interesting tribe indeed which before the middle ages endured more than their share of famines “Tree-ring analysis has been used to calculate the frequency of ecological stresses and resulting food shortages affecting these people, the builders of the impressive kivas and cliff dwellings. The data from southern New Mexico suggest that, between 600 and 1249 A.D., every other year had inadequate rainfall for dry farming, and that there were severe stress (more than two successive years of total crop failures) at least once every 25 years.”
The they split into two groups. One group settled in southern Arizona; the other moved into the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico in Mayakoba. By the 1970s most of the Indians in Arizona had switched to an American diet. Both remained relatively endemic and therefore kept the same pool of genes. Pimas in Mayakoba are on average 57 pounds (26 kg) lighter and about one inch shorter than their cousins.
To understand we have to go back to chapter two and the thrifty genes which allow those in famine conditions to adapt at storing fat it times of plenty, just like we suppose our ancestors from the ice age did. They probably did grow fat at the times but for very little time.
In the Pima case, a relative isolation has kept the balance as it has been over thousand of years. Disposition to store fat has been kept in check by more or less the same diet : “chollactus buds, honey mesquite, poverty-weed, and prickly pears from the desert floor; mule deer, white-winged dove, and black tailed jackrabbit; squawfish from the Gila River; and wheat, squash and beans grown in irrigated desert fields.” By the end of the Second World War, the Pima had almost entirely left the land, and they begin to eat like other Americans. Famine, which had long been a recurrent condition, gave way to permanent plenty, and so the Pima’s “thrifty” genes, once an advantage, were now a liability. They are all now not only extremely fat but over fifty percent of them are suffering of diabetes.
More important is the fact that once the fragile equilibrium between nature, culture, and metabolization is broken, there does not seem to ba a way back. For Pima have been over studied over thirty five years. It is said to be one of the most fruitful relationship in modern medical sciences. N.I.H researchers have conducted all analysis possible and offered help. After thirty years nevertheless, “no one has had any success helping the Pima lose weight. For all the prodding, and pocking, the hundred of research papers describing their bodily processes, and the determined efforts of health workers, year after year the tribe grows fatter”, that is more diabetic. ” The age-specific prevalence of overweight ranges from 61% to 78% in 20-54 years old men and 81% to 87% in women in the same age group.”
The same story is occuring with the native populations in Canada, in the States and pockets of culture such as Indonesian who seem “allergic” to the new diet. The tragedy of it all is that “progress” was not necessary whatsoever. We are not talking here about bettering the diet or the physical shape of the Polynesian “Almost invariably, early European mariners and travellers described Micronesian and Polynesian Pacific islanders as having fine and muscular physiques, varying from ‘slender’ to ‘stout’.[v]” In a preminatory entry in his diary Captain Cook wrote reflecting on his voyages to Polynesia in the late eighteenth century. “it would have been better for these people never to have known us”[vi] An insight which has been confirmed much later by McGonigle[vii] when he “set out to help the poor, undernourished slum-dwellers of Stockton-on-Tees. His nutritional knowledge was in advance of his generation, his clinical acumen was outstanding, his science impeccable and his drive and force of character untiring. Yet when his work was done, and the unfortunate people of the town were rehoused in fine, new sanitary dwellings, their health deteriorated and the death rate rose.[viii]
This has been known for those times but somehow the explosion of a deadly type of obesity and diabetes has projected a far more starking light on the issue of progress for humanity is losing within few decades its past, its variety, its extraordinary colours and for ever. At the best we can hope that some individuals will manage in the way Elspeth Huxley describes about the aborigines in Australia : “What has happened to the aborigines, she says, is the same as what as happened to so many other species of Australia fauna: the white man has made fundamental changes in the habitat. As with bandicoot and wombat, shrub-bird and marsupial mouse, once the habitats goes so goes the species. As individuals, humans are the most adaptable creatures on earth. As individuals they can change their diet, change their climate, change their habits and survive, but as communities they cannot; the communities disintegrates into individuals who adapt.”[ix]
But in some cases no individual even adapt and the loss is total. Nothing is left, just artifacts in museums. Some anthropologist are witnessing the unbearable. ” It is a dreadful anthropological shame, … and a loss of the most colourful cultures to decorate it, but these orchids of culture cannot survive on the artificial soil of civilization…. The change disturb us for we know better than they do how pallid and barren and how unsatisfying the fruits of civilization can be at times.”[x]
. James W.P.T. “The epidemiology of obesity” in Chadwick Derek J. and Cardew Gail (editors) The Origins and Consequences of Obesity. Ciba Foundation Symposium. [ held at the Wyndham Kingston Hotel, Kingston, Jamica, 28-30 November 1995] Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1996, p.5.
. Broussard & Al. , 1995, p.289s
. Brown & p.37
. A. Broussard & Al, 1995, p.292s
[v]. Dowse Gary K. “Paradise lost: obesity and diabetes in Pacific and Indian ocean populations” in Angel A & Al. ed. Progress in Obesity Research:7 London: John Libbey & Co Ltd, 1996, p.228.
[vii]. McGonigle, G.C.A., and Kirby, L. Poverty and Public Health, London 1936
[viii]. Pyke p.166.
[ix]. Pyke, p.60.
[x]. Deadly Feast, p.71.