Bio-cultural Connections

Bio-cultural Connections


Aymara Indians of Bolivia

The words, Bio-cultural Connections, indicate that some genetic adaptations have occurred due to long-time cultural practices.  Human beings not only adapt culturally, they also can adapt biologically.  There are many examples of bio-cultural adaptations, but for our purpose here we will examine just one well-documented bio-cultural example.

The Aymara Indians, better understood as the indigenous people of the highlands of Bolivia, live in a place commonly called the altiplano, which means basically a high altitude.

The Aymara Indians have lived for centuries, at an altitude of 13,000 to 15,000 feet, among the Rocky Mountain chain of the Andes, located in the Latin American Global Village.

The history of this population began in the lowlands, long ago, where they foraged for food.  As time passed the lowland foragers climbed higher and higher up the mountain slopes, where it was more difficult to breathe.

They found llama and other animals on the mountains, that were easily domesticated, and wild varieties of potatoes that encouraged them to give up their wandering lifestyle and begin permanent settlements.

They no longer needed to practice a nomadic way of life with animals that provided both food and clothing and potatoes providing a more stable food supply. They also found fresh water in Lake Titicaca, which is the highest navigable body of water in the world at over 13,000 feet according to  Over centuries the Aymara have been able to grow many different varieties of potatoes which they developed from the first crops they harvested.

The climate in the Andes highlands is extremely cold making the combined conditions of trying to keep warm, while breathing less oxygen, over a long period of time, a good environment for natural selection to work. Their physical bodies have developed larger lung capacities than most people have, and their body masses have become shorter, and stockier for heat preservation.

There are many instances of pioneers crossing the Rocky Mountains in North America getting what was often called “mountain fever.”  This is the normal response that most people have when climbing to high elevations over a short period of time.  The body does not have time to adjust and can suffer hypertension, fever, nausea, extreme headaches and stroke-like health dilemmas.

I’m sure the foragers who first attempted to stay on the altiplano, must have experienced the symptoms noted.  However the abundance of animals and plant foods overcame their desire to wander, and over thousands of years their bodies have acclimated and evolved (changed) in order to survive the extremes of cold and high altitudes.  The Aymara Indians give us a perfect and easily discernible example of bio-cultural adaptations.

The following is a very short clip of the Aymara Indians cultural celebration of honoring Mother Earth, or Pachamama.  The ritual begins in the early morning, on the high cliffs, when they sacrifice a white Llama and offer its heart to their deities to insure peace, tranquility, and good harvests in the future.  The ceremony takes place in August annually, and is deemed necessary for their survival.

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