3. What Is Biological Anthropology?


March 15, 2024


Listen to Anthro.mp3

What is Biological Anthropology? Featuring UMass Amherst Professor Dr. Achsah Dorsey

In this episode, we introduce one of the 4 fields of Anthropology, Biological Anthropology! We will hear from Dr. Dorsey as she goes a little more in depth about the field and her research!


  • https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/11/231106134826.
  • htmhttps://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/amphibians/cane-toad/



Claire: Hello, friends, and welcome back to anthro.mp3. We’re a group of University of Massachusetts Amherst students who are passionate about anthropology and want to share this love with as great an audience as possible. Hence this podcast. This podcast is part of a larger intercollegiate collaboration for outreach and education and anthropology. AnthroHub is a website full of all things anthro, but in fun and creative formats. Make sure to check it out to look at some incredible blog posts and creative works made by students from not just UMass Amherst, but Sage Russell University and SUNY Albany as well. My name is Claire, and I’ll be one of your hosts for today’s episode, joined by Amber.

Claire: So biological anthropology is our focus today, and we just want to give you a quick introduction before hopping into an exclusive little interview. So biological anthropology is an umbrella term for all things related to human biology. It includes genetics, the microbiome, skeletons, those from the past through bioarchaeology, and those in modern forensic contexts, as well as our evolutionary past, our connection to the primates with primatology, human growth and development, health, medicine, the list goes on.

Claire: Most people have heard of biological anthropology through the forensic lens, because, you know, we’ve all seen the show Bones or NCIS, and we find it interesting how these scientists can figure out how or when someone has died, or how someone ended up in the position they were found in post mortem, but there are so many other aspects of biological anthropology.

Claire: So, Amber, I want to know, what’s your personal experience to this point with biological anthropology?

Amber: I actually chose medical anthropology as my concentration. Because I initially wanted to go into the medical field when I first entered college. So I initially wanted to become a doctor and took the environmental science major route and then I took Anthro 103 taught by professor Linet Sievert, whom I later, uh, assisted in her lab, which does research, um, on the link between brown adipose tissue and hot flashes in postmenopausal women.

Amber: And her class really fascinated me because, uh, not only did it teach some primatology, but it also taught some like evolutionary biology and really uh, answer the love questions I had about humans and how we became to be the species that we are, and I really enjoyed learning about archaic humans, um, different types of ancestors we’ve had, and how all of these historical elements of our species experience affected the health and the, you know, medical makeup and experience that humans have today.

Amber: After taking Anthro 103 with Professor Sieverts and working with her a little bit, I changed my major to Anthropology, and I started taking a lot of classes with Professor Todd DeSoto. This hotel, who teaches classes like emerging diseases and human evolution classes. Finally, I took forensics and human ecology with Dr. Perez.

Amber: And I realized that I had a natural talent for assembling bones, which is a little weird, but and then I just realized I had a natural curiosity regarding anatomy, bones, and how things like environments, cultural violence, ecology affect human health. What made me decide to pursue a PhD in biological anthropology once I graduate was the fact that biological anthropology braids science and medicine with cultural and social elements of anthropology.

Amber: Culture, environments, and human ecology all affect human health and biology. Evolutionary biology and forensics give my mind a better way to picture, visualize, conceptualize elements of human health that have to do with our evolutionary history as a species.

Claire: That’s really, really interesting, and I love that you found, you know youre niche little talent for you assembling bones, which is, that’s really cool, actually.

Claire: Um, my first ever anthropology course was, uh, Biological Anthropology 103 as well, actually, but I had it with Brigitte Holt. Uh, and for me it was just an introduction to the field. And it was one of the things that really got me hooked on anthropology itself before I moved more into my personal specialization.

Claire: So I just truly enjoyed learning about the evolutionary pipeline and all the similarities between us and our primate ancestors. I think that might be what propelled me into archeology as a specialization, because I realized through this class that I wanted to learn more about how humans have changed over time.

Claire: You know, I mean, I mean my research is more in culture than biology, but that’s why I’m so super excited about this interview as a chance to learn more about it. With that said, let’s get right into it. 

Amber: Hello everybody and thank you for coming back to our podcast. Um, today is dedicated to biological anthropology and we’ve already talked a little bit about what that is in the introduction episode. So today we’re just going to go a little bit more in details about everything related to biological anthropology and if you can remember bones as well because there’s so, so many bones in anthropology.

Amber: But that’s not all though, because kinesiology and anatomy also play a huge role in biological anthropology. There’s also human evolution, genetics, and really, it’s an umbrella for everything related to studying physical aspects of humans. Um, a lesser known subfield of anthropology is, um, nutritional anthropology, which, according to Wikipedia, is the study of the interplay between human biology, economic system, nutritional status, and food security.

Amber: To talk more about this, we’ve brought on a very, very special guest, um, Aksha Dorsey. Thank you so much. Um, so she’s a biological anthropologist who does research in nutritional anthropology and teaches nutritional anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. So before we start, what would you like to be called today on this podcast?

Dorsey: We can go with Dr. Dorsey or Professor Dorsey and my pronouns are she and her.

Amber: Perfect. Thank you so much for joining us today. Um, so Dr. Dorsey, how did you get into anthropology? 

Dorsey: This is always a fun question because I think the majority of people in anthropology didn’t know what anthropology was until they got to their undergraduate school.

Dorsey: Um, but I think before that, right before I had the kind of language to describe what I was interested in, um, my kind of fascination with just people and how very, very different we can be, but also very, very similar, I think, uh, came from my childhood where I was a military brat. So in the United States, that means that one parent is in, um, one of the military branches.

Dorsey: So in my case, my father was a Marine. Uh, and every three years we would move to a different place. Um, so getting up, packing up your stuff, landing in a completely different environment. Um, also as a child, right, there were very stark differences between living on base, which is all four military families and military personnel, and then what I used to call civilian life.

Dorsey: So living just out in the world. So moving in between these spaces, as well as all over the United States. As a kid, I became really interested in just how much difference there is between people and that you can live even in the same country and realize that people act, behave, think very differently from each other.

Dorsey: But at the same time, we all have commonalities there. The patterns that I’m seeing right even as a kid where even though I’m in a completely different place, whether it’s rural Georgia or urban Connecticut and noticing things that are bringing people together as well as the things that are making people interesting and different.

Amber: That’s, that’s amazing. And one thing that brings people together is food. I noticed as well. Um, how did you get into your subfield of biological anthropology and then later on in nutritional anthropology?

Dorsey: Yeah, so, um, this happened in undergrad. So I discovered an anthropology class. I took it and I fell in love with it.

Dorsey: Um, it really allowed me to hang on my interest of like history deep history deep evolutionary history, um as well as biology and culture. So all the things that I think help make us human and who we are. Um, from there, I took a bunch of different classes and really enjoyed biological anthropology. And this is because I’ve always been kind of interested in health.

Dorsey: I’m interested in how the body works and functions. Um, and I enjoyed anthropology as a way to also focus on how our lived experience, things that we do every day, all the time, how we grew up, etc. becomes written on your body so that you can not just your your bones, which you’ve talked about right in the introduction here So you can definitely tell a lot of things about a person’s work what they did repeatedly over and over again based on the skeletal skeletal remains. But we can also see evidence of how people live work play etc in their physiology as well. So, with this, I became very interested in child growth and development.

Dorsey: I think kids are fascinating, um, I love the fact that they keep asking why questions even when I don’t know the answer, um, because it really makes you think, why do we do these things, right? And, and is the answer I’m giving even satisfactory for me as an adult? Um, and so through that, children are, growing incredibly rapidly, right?

Dorsey: They need to get really, really big, really, really quickly. And so they need a lot of energy. So with my interest in child health, child growth, child development, food is an incredibly important aspect of this because this is where they’re getting the energy to do all those things to grow up and to become juveniles, to become adolescents and eventually become adults.

Dorsey: Um, So my interest in kids right started as more just kind of how do we even grow? How do we develop and how do ideas about parenting and taking care of kids help shape this trajectory? Um, but also at the same time, this this really fascinating idea of food and food can differ so much, right? Even just between households, neighbors, etc. 

Dorsey: Uh, so what is going on with food and how does that contribute, not just energy, but other aspects of child growth and health. 

Amber: Yeah, I think that children always, um, have, like, the natural tendency to raise questions and those questions always, like, help the curious people come up with new new aspects and new lenses.

Amber: So, um, it’s really interesting that like you’ve worked with children and like child development because we’ve all been a child at some point. And whatever happened to us when we were children, like you said, you can see it in the physiology and like the bones of people later on. Um, but how would you say that food affects us in ways that maybe we aren’t aware of, like you were saying, in terms of society, culture, genetics, language?

Dorsey: Yeah, I mean, I think one way to think about this is that food is just so incredibly important to survival, not just for humans, but for any kind of species out there, even little bacteria. We’re learning more and more that even viruses, right, need certain elements in order to, uh, live, or live, right, in quote, air quotes for viruses, but reproduce proliferate and to spread.

Dorsey: And what is fascinating about humans is that we have this deep history, right, of, of evolution, just like any other organism. Um, and we know what’s incredibly important to that is genetic inheritance, right? That’s usually what we learn in our high school biology class, that things have evolved because we’ve inherited certain genes from our parents, and that, um, people pass those on to their offspring and so on and so on and down the line.

Dorsey: And this is incredibly important, right? These are the, the building blocks, uh, to who we are and how our bodies are structured and, and all these fascinating aspects, but humans are a little bit different than other organisms because we also have two other things that are incredibly important to human evolution and development.

Dorsey: And, uh, one of those is what we kind of call cultural inheritance or tradition. This idea that we don’t need to start from scratch. Every time we have a new generation, we can learn patterns. We can learn behaviors. We can learn what food is healthy or good for us on what we should eat, not just from our parents and grandparents, but also our peers.

Dorsey: So we see this this transfer of knowledge right through generations as well as genetics, but then also across generations as well. And another very interesting thing that humans have, so we have right genetic inheritance. We have cultural inheritance or tradition, and we also have this incredible ability to think outside the box, to be creative, to be innovative, to think about something different.

Dorsey: Um, very, very strong foundational to kind of getting humans to where we are today, uh, through our evolution, but also in how we respond to different things. Um, and I find these three things is fascinating just from looking at how we have developed, how we’ve ended up where we are, contemporary kind of models, um, and that we, that we work with and interact with, but also how this connects to food, um. Food interacts with us so much.

Dorsey: It’s kind of wild to just try to summarize it in this in this brief thing. Um, but I find it so interesting because it’s truly biocultural, right? So you are what you eat has many different meanings. We also we often think of this is as the the food that you’re eating is how you identify right is a connection to your social identity.

Dorsey: It connects you to other people, right? So you are what you eat in this kind of identity way in the social setting and creating community. Uh, but food is also you in that you’re using all these elements of food to build your bones to make your cells work and function. Um, there is a very fascinating study that looked at, right?

Dorsey: We can tell what populations have eaten most of the life by looking at various isotopes in their bones. And modern day Americans are mostly corn. Right? So that’s fun to think about, especially when we start considering, okay, in the United States, what, when we’re looking at agriculture, what is important economically?

Dorsey: What is important? with where we can grow corn, how we grow it, what those interact with. So even just something as simple as this question of corn, you need to take in not just what it does to the body, what vitamins, minerals, the energy that it’s giving us, but also these bigger social structures and environmental change.

Dorsey: What is going into producing this corn that isn’t just us eating it, right? How are we producing it? How does it get transported across the planet? Across the from the farm to your table. Who are the people that needs to interact with? And how does this also shape our ideas about food?

Amber: I think it’s interesting that you said the main one is corn because corn is really present in like so many uh, different foods, even ones that you wouldn’t expect to have corn in them when you read the labels.

Amber: There’s always, like, some form of corn starch or corn protein or something. Do you think that, um, that economy really, um, co-shapes like the way people eat with culture and affects people’s biology due to changes in economic systems and modes of modes of distribution like you were saying. Do you think it affects certain populations differently?

Amber: And how does like food accessibility come into like the question of like affecting people’s every day.

Dorsey: Yeah, there are a lot going on there, right? And a lot to unpack with these different things. I do always think of with the corn example is there’s a comedian, Trevor Noah from South Africa, and he had a great quote where he was in the United States.

Dorsey: Corn is like racism. It’s in everything. Right, this idea that we need to think about how did it get right embedded in all these systems and all these places? Why is it very much present? And yeah, we need to look at kind of what it does the environment look like in the United States. Where is corn grown?

Dorsey: How did we get to kind of these big giant mono cultures that we’re producing just one crop over amnd over again?

Dorsey: What does that do to the land? What does that do to the soil? What does that do to soil content, which is reflected in the amount of minerals and vitamins that is in the corn that we we’re eating? Right? How is it spread? etc. So we can go just the ripple effects, right? Of where this is and how you can study just something as simple as corn.

Dorsey: Uh, and how does this kind of impact our, what we’re eating, our, our biology, our health, right? These, these, um physiological responses, um, that are directly connected to kind of the food that we have. And food access is an incredibly important issue that we’re facing. Um, I think it is fascinating to know that we are producing more food than we have ever produced before.

Dorsey: We have enough food to feed the world’s population, which is growing, right? Billions of people, but we have enough food to feed everybody. Um, but we still see famine, right? We still see, um, people that don’t have as much food access, and then we need to ask ourselves why. If we have the food, what is going on, and what is preventing people from accessing this food?

Dorsey: Um, and also when we think about, uh, kind of food access and the involvement with food, we also need to think about what food is being accessed. Um, this is important, not just in terms of, is it the same food over and over again? All right. Is it well balanced? Does it have the vitamins, minerals, calories, right, that people need in order to survive, but also is the food that people have access to, how does that connect to their identity? 

Dorsey: Is it important to them? Um, do they have the foods they need, not just every day, but for occasions of celebration? Right for for these traditions and traditional foods that we have. I’m thinking of Thanksgiving coming up, right? When you picture Thanksgiving, what is on the table and why is that important to bringing people together?

Amber: No, definitely. I think that, um, that food has a really big way of bringing families together and bridging, like, tradition to modern day and the past and the present. And we all have, like, an old grandma recipe that has been passed down, like you were saying, cultural inheritance. Um, but, Talking more about food, uh, we saw that on, on the UMass website, you work specifically in studying iron deficiency, uh, infection, and the gut microbiome.

Amber: Those all sound really interesting, um, subjects and, could you maybe elaborate a little bit on that? What have you found through this research? Um, if you can share anything about it.

Dorsey: Yeah, so my interest in, um, kind of iron deficiency or, or anemia actually came from, um, I do my current research in Lima, Peru.

Dorsey: And I ended up there because I was a grad student and I had no idea what I wanted to do my dissertation on or what I should research. Um, and I was in a class and the professor announced that she had a friend who is putting together an international course in Lima and they desperately needed a teaching assistant.

Dorsey: Um, and if that, if anyone was interested to reach out and I was like an opportunity to live in Lima for a summer, yes, I will definitely do that. Um, and, and while I was there, I had a chance to kind of interview and talk with a bunch of women. So, originally I was thinking that I would look at female reproductive ecology.

Dorsey: So what is going on with women’s health, right? Um, how does cultural context influence health and, and how do those things kind of create feedback loops? But when I was there, I was talking to women. And asking them what their big major health concerns were on all of them said anemia and not anemia for themselves, but they were concerned about anemia in their kids.

Dorsey: They wanted their kids to grow and develop and be strong and smart and be able to get jobs and just be incredible people when they grew up. And they were concerned that anemia was going to hold them back, right? Because anemia makes you fatigued, it makes you tired, irritable, right? It doesn’t, um, lend itself to learning very well, right?

Dorsey: It doesn’t allow itself to playing and growing strong if you’re constantly kind of weak, feeling weak, feeling fatigued. Um, so one thing in anthropology is you’re interacting with people a lot. Um, and I find that it is. So much easier to develop a project when the people you’re working with actually want to talk about the thing that you’re studying.

Dorsey: So I was interested in this. And when I came back to the United States, I was like, what is it about anemia or iron deficiency? What, How does this actually interact in the body? What are the systems involved? How do we kind of get to this point where we see a nutritional deficiency? Uh, and I came across this, this fascinating theory and this, uh, kind of foundational theory in evolutionary medicine.

Dorsey: So this idea that we can look at our evolutionary past, our, our deep, deep historical development in order to understand why we get sick, why we have the diseases that we do. And within this kind of broad idea of how to, how to look at an approach health from an evolutionary point of view.

Dorsey: Um I discovered that there’s some very interesting things about iron, so we as humans desperately need iron. We don’t make it on our own. We have to consume it, and we need iron for all the different cellular functions that are happening in the body, right? It’s incredibly important, especially for oxygen transport and oxygen as we all know if you’ve ever had to hold your breath for longer than a minute, right?

Dorsey: Incredibly important. Um. But at the same time, other organisms also need iron to survive, to reproduce, to proliferate, uh, including bacteria, including parasites. And we’re finding more and more evidence about viruses as well, right? Needing this iron. And, like us, they need to get iron from an outside source.

Dorsey: They can’t produce it. So when you are infected, right, with a pathogen of some sort, it’s gonna need iron. So where do we think that iron is going to come from? The host you, um, and what’s fascinating is, is we can look at kind of molecular structures, um, at at the pathogen level at human, um, human level and see how we have almost this evolutionary arms race where bacteria have evolved a certain thing to get better at stealing iron from us.

Dorsey: And so we’ve evolved certain things to get better at holding onto that iron so pathogens couldn’t get it. And then they developed further, right? So it’s this interesting combination. Um, but pathogens can evolve a lot faster than us because they have quicker generations, right? So they’re able to inherit genetics quicker and quicker, right?

Dorsey: And pass them down. Whereas humans, we have a longer generation, so it takes a longer time to evolve and adapt. But we have this incredible thing called an immune system, which helps us fight off pathogens. And one of the things our immune system does immediately, right, before identifying what the pathogen is, if we remember it, etc.

Dorsey: is to have an innate immune response. So this is kind of the gut reaction to any kind of inflammation. And one of those aspects is that we hide iron away. We sequester it, we put it away in cells, try to hide it from any kind of pathogen that would want to get it, and we also decrease iron absorption. So we’re not picking up as much iron in our gut.

Dorsey: And the idea here is if we look at this, right, that iron, uh, lower iron levels, could actually be beneficial when you are trying to fight off an infection. So if we look at areas with high disease ecology, right, so a lot of different pathogens that are going to cause infection or disease, it might actually be beneficial to have low levels of iron.

Dorsey: The problem is if you have low levels of iron for too long, or you have too low levels of iron, then you start suffering. Your cells start starving for iron and they need it. So, so this idea of kind of evolutionary medicine with iron deficiency is when is it a disorder? Something that we need to try to, uh, intervene on to, to improve, to increase the levels of iron.

Dorsey: But when is it also a body’s defense against pathogens? Um, so this I find fascinating, right? What is this kind of homeostasis, this allostatic approach to, uh, physiology that, that can actually protect us? And this is incredibly important when thinking about what we do when we find out that someone is iron deficient, is that we give them iron supplementation.

Dorsey: A ton of iron, right? Whether it’s in pill form, whether it’s in syrup form, we also have these little sprinkles that you put on food. This can be incredibly beneficial if you have low enough irons that it’s starting to impact your health, but this could be, potentially be problematic if your body is just trying to protect you from disease.

Dorsey: You just gave your body an insane amount of iron. What does this do to iron availability? What does this do to, to pathogen proliferation? So I was very interested in kind of exploring this because in the community that I work in, in Peru, San Juan de Larry Gancho, is a kind of, um, established community, some say is part of Lima and some say it’s not.

Dorsey: Um, it’s, it’s made up of internal migrants from the Andes and the Amazon coming to Lima for kind of economic promise. for jobs, for for education, for better health care, etc. Um, so it tends to be lower socioeconomic status. There’s a lot of classism and racism against the families that live there.

Dorsey: Um, and they have relatively high rates of iron deficiency and anemia, and Peru has tried to address this by doing intervention after intervention after intervention, and in this specific community, San Juan de Lurigancho, anemia rates have gone up instead of down. So my big question is, what is going on here, right?

Dorsey: If we are giving children iron directly, in this case through fortified syrup, Why are they not improving their iron status? And how could we explain it by looking at the environment and social context? How is this connected to levels of disease, the disease ecology? Um, and an interesting kind of aspect that I love to explore is the gut microbiome.

Dorsey: The gut is where you absorb iron. The gut is made up of all of these different wiggly squiggly things right in there that are working together in some ways, helping break food apart, allowed different, um, elements that are easier for you to take up, but they’re also using them too. So what is going on in the in the intestines that is either potentially causing increases in inflammation or potentially aiding us in our immune defense against pathogens?

Amber: Wow, that’s so interesting because you would think that giving them iron pills would actually treat the anemia, but it’s actually having the opposite effect. Um, so you described the community you were working in as like kind of a peri urban society. Um, what made you choose to work with that community specifically?

Dorsey: Yeah, so I’ve worked in San Juan de la Regencia because people were interested in anemia there, not just the public health officials that were, that were promoting kind of um, uh, these anemia prevention, uh, uh, ideas and interventions, but also the moms in these areas really, really wanted to help their kids.

Dorsey: And I was there to help try to understand why iron supplementation wasn’t working and hopefully kind of with that information help shape potential future interventions. What’s interesting about peri urban communities and what I find them Incredibly fascinating, right? It’s fully urban as you’re integrated into these social systems, healthcare, uh, water, global food supplies, etc.

Dorsey: And then we have kind of rural communities that we see as more distant to that, but have their own kind of functioning. But peri urban are this interesting in between spaces where people often think of them as transitional, where it’s going to lend itself to becoming more urban. Which happens right as cities grow bigger and bigger, but I also think that it’s a fascinating area to look at because it’s not quite as integrated into urban structures, but it’s not as remote as, say, some a community in the Indies or the Amazon.

Dorsey: So what’s going on here? Also, the, the demographics of these areas, right, the people living in these peri urban spaces are also in transition themselves. They’re trying to increase their social status. They’re trying to increase their socioeconomic status. They’re trying to create a life where their children can have a better life than they did in the past.

Amber: Would you say that these peri urban communities have maybe less food access then maybe the people living in Lima? And would you think that food access has a link to this anemia problem?

Dorsey: So food access here is an interesting question where if we think of it kind of traditionally as like food access, just as geographic distance to, say, a supermarket.

Dorsey: Yes, they definitely have lower access in that regard, but they’re peri urban communities, so they have a foot in the urban world, right, and a foot in kind of the rural aspect. And what I found is even though these giant kind of global international supermarket chains exist, and they’re farther away, they’re a little harder to get to, this area also has a number of different markets.

Dorsey: And so food is actually relatively accessible. It’s very easy. They’re within different neighborhoods. Um, uh, bigger markets might require a 10 minute walk, uh, but every other household has kind of a mini market where they will sell fruit, uh, sandwiches or any kind of pre packaged goods. So, so food access itself in terms of just getting food is not necessarily a problem here, which is interesting when looking at anemia because we think of it as like a nutritional deficiency, right?

Dorsey: It is a deficiency in something related to nutrition, but it isn’t always related to just lack of food.

Amber: Would you say that uh, this population you were working with had higher rates of parasites or, um, you know, the things you mentioned earlier that kind of feed on the iron of the host?

Dorsey: Yeah, so we looked at intestinal parasites, uh, specifically, and we actually didn’t find that high of rates of intestinal parasites, which is interesting because that’s a way where you can get anemia without being iron deficient, right, is if you’re losing a lot of blood to kind of, uh, worms or other diseases, right, where it’s just-

Dorsey: You have low levels of hemoglobin because you’re losing blood, but in this case, we didn’t see high rates of intestinal parasites, but we did see, uh, I’d say probably higher than what we would consider normal or average rates of respiratory infection. So cold symptoms, runny nose, cough, difficulty breathing as well as diarrheal disease.

Dorsey: So a lot of different, uh, both kind of, um, Bacterial as well as parasite things that can occur. So, um, Giardia being one of those as well as just kind of just any rotavirus that causes diarrhea as well. 

Amber: That’s interesting because earlier you mentioned that, um, when you have to fight an infection your body is more likely to come up with-

Amber: This defense mechanism that holds off the iron, right? Um, do you think that these high rates, higher rates of diseases and infections are the key to understanding why these children have lower iron levels?

Dorsey: Yeah, I think it is part of this big, giant puzzle, right? Humans are so incredibly complicated and there’s so many factors that can influence anything when looking at health and disease.

Dorsey: But in my research, I do find evidence supporting this connection between morbidity, so illness, leading to an inflammatory response in the body, which leads to lower rates of, of iron and hemoglobin. So we do see a connection here where this, um, potentially higher disease ecology is going to kind of um relate to lower levels of iron or higher rates of anemia.

Amber: Wow, that’s really interesting. Um, also, another thing that I was wondering about is, are there any connections between body fat and iron deficiency? And what is the effect of body fat differences between adults and children?

Dorsey: Yeah so, body fat is, is a fascinating thing to when, when you’re looking at kind of nutritional deficiencies.

Dorsey: So we have something that we see, um, patterns of called the dual burden of malnutrition. And this is where we see overweight and obesity at the same time that we’re seeing nutritional deficiencies. So nutritional deficiencies, we usually associate with underweight, but in fact we’re seeing them actually together, right?

Dorsey: So we’re seeing overweight and obesity along with things like iron deficiency. So, this is interesting. Why would we see these kinds of patterns? So, um, there are a lot of different theories out there. And the one, um, that I was interested in exploring was so a lot of body fat can lead to higher inflammatory markers.

Dorsey: So when we’re talking about inflammation as kind of a signal to the body to hide iron and to not absorb as much of it. Your body can’t tell if the inflammation is coming from a potential infection with a pathogen or from something else. So I was curious to look at body fat as a potential cause of inflammation that would lead to iron sequestration, uh, and eventually anemia.

Dorsey: Um, and evidence for this has been mixed. It’s very, uh, different depending on whether you’re looking at adults or children. Uh, we haven’t seen kind of consistent global patterns. It’s different depending on the sample that people are looking at. But I was interested in exploring it here. Um, and my prediction was that higher body fat would lead to higher inflammatory markers, which would lead to an increased risk of anemia.

Dorsey: But I didn’t find that. I actually found that children that had higher body fat, right, our bigger bodies, um, it was protective against anemia and it also meant that they would respond to iron supplementation as opposed to not responding, um, which I found, I love it when I’m wrong with my predictions and I also love it when, so coupled with, um, my, my data collection where I was doing kind of biomarkers or all this kind of stuff.

Dorsey: I also did extensive interviews and deep, deep hanging out with moms and the children about kind of their, their lives, trying to get a general picture. And when I talked to moms about what does a healthy kid look like, they told me the healthy kids are fat. The healthy kids are big. They’re bigger, they’re robust, they have more energy.

Dorsey: A lot of moms expressed like frustration that they were concerned about their kid because their kid was too small. Their kid needed to be bigger because that meant they were healthier. Which is fascinating because in the United States, we don’t think that way at all, right? But here, moms were telling me over and over again, No, I want my kid to be bigger.

Dorsey: It means that they’re going to be healthier. And in terms of iron deficiency, in terms of anemia, in terms of ability to respond to iron supplementation, they were correct, right? The bigger kids actually had a better chance of responding to iron supplementation and becoming non anemic.

Amber: Wow. That’s so interesting because sometimes moms have a way of knowing things about, about their children’s well being and, um, actually, you mentioned, you you mentioned a lot about working with, um, kids, and I was wondering if there were any experiences that stood out to you?Uh, with doing this type of participatory work, um, and research with children.

Dorsey: Yeah, um, there are a number of things and I’d say there are memories that stand out because they’re incredibly positive and hopeful and there are memories that stand out because they are devastating and hard to deal with. Um, so I find just working with kids interesting because they, they don’t know social roles yet, right?

Dorsey: They don’t know what they’re not supposed to ask and what they are supposed to act, ask or behave. Uh, so they really are just. Just saying what they’re thinking, which is incredible when you’re trying to get out. What do people actually think about things? And with kids often during interviews, right? They get bored.

Dorsey: We’re talking a lot, etc So I would bring kind of crayons and paper and ask them to draw and I would ask them to draw a healthy kid and a sick kid And the drawings that came out of this are beautiful, right? So, like, the healthy kids are out, they’re playing, right? They have rainbows, they have clouds, right?

Dorsey: Really bright, really green. And then the sick kids often just, it’s the color shift, right? It’s dark, it’s gray, there’s a lot more squiggles. Things are not as clear and in focus. And so even when kids couldn’t necessarily describe what it meant when they were healthier when they were sick, they knew enough to be able to draw it, right?

Dorsey: And we could see it reflected in the images. And I think that’s just so incredibly fun and in an interesting way to kind of look at what people are thinking. Um, and in terms of kind of the more devastating kind of, uh, things that I remember, uh, it really just makes me more adamant for social change, right?

Dorsey: So a lot of the things that I saw and witnessed were children incredibly hurt and incredibly sick with things that are very easy to fix. Right. Uh, and, and when we think about, infrastructure. When we think about health access, when we think about these things, we often see them as these big things that we need to adjust.

Dorsey: When in reality, we really just need to focus on making sure kids have clean water. We need to make sure that kids have enough food to eat and that they feel safe. And while those are more abstract ideas and people who want to do interventions tend to love to see immediate results. And these things where you’re actually changing structures of a community, addressing social inequalities, take time, and they take a lot of effort.

Dorsey: And so there tends to be, we speak a lot of service to doing that, but in reality, because it is slow, because it’s hard to do, we don’t do as much as we should in those regards.

Amber: That’s, that’s very sad that, um, that, uh, these systematic, uh, failures are leading to, like, all of the suffering for these innocent children, not just in Lima, but even in the U.S

Amber: like, and all around the world. And I hope that, um, You know, uh, food availability, which is not the issue, like you were saying. 

Dorsey: It can be, though. It’s a big part of it. 

Amber: Yeah. It’s, it’s, how would you say, what, how would you say would be the best way to fix this problem?

Dorsey: Mmm. Ha, ha, ha. Uh, I think, honestly, we need to to start caring and I think people care and then are unsure of what to do and and more and more It’s getting involved with politics, right this idea that oh, I I you know It’s this thing that’s happening around me and that I don’t necessarily have any input in and that’s not necessarily true And it’s an incredible design right where we have politics and and we live in an area with democracy right where people can make change and but that doesn’t happen when we don’t think we can make a difference.

Dorsey: But when there are enough people coming together, enough people are working together, we do see shifts. Um, and so more and more, while politics can be incredibly boring, reading those laws are dense, they’re hard, there’s a lot of language there that’s not easy to understand. But I think getting into that, finding people who can help break down these bigger picture things, uh, and working together can actually make a difference.

Dorsey: So that, I think, At its core is what we need to do. And then after that, there’s a lot of nitty gritty that we can discuss about kind of what can shift.

Amber: Thank you. Um, I was also wondering What does this work like mean to you personally?

Dorsey: Yeah, I mean, I like personally, I love it because I was a kid that always asked why and doing this work means I can keep doing that and not be annoying or maybe annoying to some, right? But this idea of, okay, we’re seeing high rates of anemia in this area. Why? All right. So a lot of, um, when I went in with this question and talked with a lot of public health professionals, they told me, oh, it’s because, uh, parents aren’t giving their kids the iron supplementation.

Dorsey: And so I was like, why? And when I went in and talked to moms and caregivers, I actually found that wasn’t true at all. Parents were giving their kids iron supplementation at incredibly high rates of adherence, um, when looking at, at other kinds of interventions, uh, despite having all these burdens and other, and other worries.

Dorsey: So then why again? So why are we seeing this? And then, okay. Inflammation. Why? What types of inflammation could influence this? Okay. Morbidity. What kinds of morbidity? What does morbidity look like in the gut? What does morbidity look like in the environment? So, really, I like this work because I can keep asking questions.

Amber: Um, and, uh, why are you passionate about this work?

Dorsey: You know, I I love being able to see how biology and culture interact. I think if we truly want to understand why we are the way we are, why we see health patterns that we do, why we see the responses that we do, we truly need to understand our biology, our deep evolutionary history, as well as the context in which we live and the historical context that brought us here, right?

Dorsey: I love doing this because that’s an insane amount of things to try to understand. And so there’s always more and more to look into and to try to unpack.

Amber: Thank you so much. Before we finish this episode, I just wanted to ask if there’s any anything else you would like to share about your work or what you do, your field or any websites or blogs outside of the UMass Anthropology website?

Dorsey: Yeah, well, I think, uh, probably the most pertinent thing to discuss is so I am in the process of putting together a local research project and I am interested in, um, so anemia and iron deficiency, but in the United States, so in the US, 35 percent of women of reproductive age are iron deficient. But it is, totally undiagnosed.

Dorsey: And there are a number of reasons why this might be so kind of lack of guidelines for assessment. Um, but also this, this misconception about what is causing this iron deficiency and the idea that actually, you know, common symptoms with iron deficiency, fatigue, irritability, etc, are, and this is air quotes, normal for women.

Dorsey: And so this understanding that this is normal, women should just feel like this all the time, right? It’s not something that needs to be investigated or, or, uh, explored means that we ignore potentially some nutritional deficiencies that could have really big impacts in a person’s ability to work, play, and live.

Dorsey: Uh, so this project, I’m interested in this idea of, okay, nutritional status. Both sex and gender and how those things are interacting. So what is going on at the cellular level that might make females more likely to be anemic? But then what are our cultural ideas about gender and how men and women behave and what they should eat, right?

Dorsey: And how they should interact and what is cause for concern and what isn’t? And how do those things interact with each other? Uh, to come up with Iron deficiency or other nutritional status. So I am currently recruiting undergraduates to help put together this proposal with the idea that we will submit IRB hopefully over the summer or early fall and then begin data collection on campus soon.

Amber: Thank you so much. I’m definitely going to keep track of this project and thank you for being our guest on this podcast. And yeah! 

Dorsey: it looks like thank you for having me.

Amber: Wow, it was really interesting to talk to Dr. Dorsey and hear what she had to say, especially learning about how gut microbiome and levels of inflammation can affect iron absorption in children who have anemia. Sometimes, the solution to a problem is not the one that seems to be obvious. A supplement intake is not always effective when anemia is exacerbated by microbiome issues, parasites, or environmental issues.

Amber: The solution to solving world hunger is not food, but politics, as Dr. Dorsey explained. There is enough food, but the issue is one of leadership. We need better leaders to do better when it comes to making policies that affect everyone and children, especially children. Anthropology is a field that is amazing at shining lights on nuances and pinpointing the different root causes of problems in order to better address issues related to human life.

Amber: Biology, politics, and anthropology are all intertwined when it comes to solving human problems such as hunger or anemia. It was interesting to hear a professor mention the feeling of wanting to help populations participating in research studies, but not always having the capability to help on a bigger scale.

Amber: Nutritional anthropologists often have to see children that are suffering from malnutrition, deficiencies, and many other forms of health and social injustices. What Professor Dorsey emphasized is the importance of keeping an altruistic, humane approach when working with populations that are vulnerable, and children are especially vulnerable.

Amber: What I took away from this as a future researcher in anthropology is the importance of keeping the will to change things for the better as a source of motivation for future research. To always look for different explanations instead of focusing on what seems to be an obvious solution. And to always listen to people participating in the studies, their families, and get their full social, cultural, and environmental context.

Amber: Lastly, the importance of politics in solving sociocultural issues that have health repercussions on vulnerable populations is crucial.

Claire: I definitely agree with everything you said, and I think that was incredibly well put. Um, so now that we’ve talked about what biological anthropology is and sort of what stakes we personally have in it, we can’t wait to explore it even more in future episodes.

Claire: Speaking with Dr. Dorsey was a really great opportunity, and I cannot wait for our next couple interviews.

Amber: Thank you all for tuning into our show today. Another thank you to our team members and all our collaborators with AnthroHub, especially our tech crew. To stay connected, you can find us on Instagram at anthro.mp3. You can also find our sources, transcripts of each episode, and more in our Anthro Hub show notes. I was one of your hosts today, Amber, joined by our other hosts, Claire, and our tech crew, Yueming, Emily, and Phuong. Make sure to tune in next time to further explore the field of anthropology with us again.

Amber: If you enjoyed this episode, you’ll love our next one, an introduction to archaeology with another exclusive interview. Keep an eye out on our Instagram for future updates on shows, specials, and events. Catch us next time and have a great day, friends.


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