OA HeLP adopts an explicitly evolutionary perspective on human health and well-being. The project consists of two inter-related components: 1) Quantitative anthropological research addressing a variety of basic questions in human evolutionary ecology, and 2) Biomedical research focusing on evolutionary hypotheses of health.
Our methodological approach involves embedded fieldwork and giving back to local communities through healthcare services. The term ‘lifeways’ captures the integrative spirit and ultimate goal of the endeavor: to improve our understanding of human evolution by developing and testing complex causal models of human biology, health, culture, and society based on anthropological field data from diverse ecological contexts.
Part 1. Quantitative anthropological research
Human biology and behavior are shaped by complex interactions between learning, development, cognition, physiology, and the environment, all in the context of broader cultural norms and societal histories. Our research uses the theory and tools of behavioral ecology and cultural evolution to better understand how individual-level and cultural attributes shape human decision making and social organization. These approaches can help us to make sense of how the Orang Asli experience and adapt to rapidly changing environments, and in turn how they may affect their health and well-being.
Part 2. Biomedical research
Humans today are getting sick and dying from a variety of non-communicable chronic diseases (NCCDs) that were much less prevalent among earlier generations, such as Type–2 diabetes, musculoskeletal conditions, and neurological illnesses. The escalating NCCD epidemic is among the largest and most urgent global health concerns today.
There is ample evidence to suggest NCCDs are in part “mismatch diseases,” disorders caused by human bodies being inadequately adapted to novel features of modern environments. But identifying the precise environmental factors underlying the global NCCD epidemic has been challenging. One important obstacle is that nearly all relevant epidemiological research has been focused on so-called “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) populations. While useful, such studies are inevitably limited in their ability to investigate potential causes of NCCDs due to the homogeneity of the environments and cultures of WEIRD populations, in addition to key environmental features such as diet and physical activity that typically differ greatly between WEIRD and non-WEIRD populations. As a result, the causal pathways and complex interactions between traditional lifeways and the pace of environmental changes responsible for such increases in NCCDs remain poorly understood. Establishing complex causal relationships between specific ecological and social factors and disease outcomes requires longitudinal and integrative datasets from individuals living in diverse environments.
An integrative approach to evolutionary health
To live and work among the Orang Asli today is a case study in how culture influences health across the life course. In a single village, the anthropologist might observe people who are active or sedentary, some who use smartphones and others who eschew technology, or some who eat primarily store-bought foods while others hunt and gather daily in the forest. OA HeLP’s approach is to embrace this dynamic variation as a source of explanatory power. The rapidly transforming economies and social structures of the Orang Asli thus provide fertile ground for testing theories of human behavior and health, which can in turn have important implications for improving quality of life.
OA HeLP aims to investigate the cultural-evolutionary dynamics of health among small-scale societies. Specifically, this means collecting standardized, integrative datasets on behavior and physiology across ecological and social gradients among a diverse set of rapidly-acculturating small-scale societies. This project will have a long-term yet intermittent presence in a large sample of diverse Orang Asli communities where ethnographic fieldwork, medical screening, on-site medical treatment, and community health education will occur. Our data collection methods are diverse, ranging from physiological and biomechanical measurements to observational and survey-based ethnographic data.
Our current work focuses on four Orang Asli groups: Temuan, Temiar, Semai, and Batek.