Mount Pinatubo, Inflammatory Cytokines, and the Immunological Ecology of Aeta Hunter-Gatherers


Early growth cessation and reproduction are predicted to maximize fitness under conditions of high adult mortality, factors that could explain the pygmy phenotype of many rainforest hunter-gatherers. This life-history hypothesis is elegant but contentious in part because it lacks a clear biological mechanism. One mechanism stems from the field of human immunological ecology and the concept of inflammation “memory” across the life cycle and into subsequent generations. Maternal exposures to disease can influence immunological cues present in breast milk; because maternal provisioning via lactation occurs during critical periods of development, it is plausible that these cues can also mediate early growth cessation and small body size. Such epigenetic hypotheses are difficult to test, but the concept of developmental programming is attractive because it could explain how the stature of a population can change over time, in terms of both secular increases and rapid intergenerational decreases. Here we explore this concept by focusing on the Aeta, a population of former hunter-gatherers, and the Ilocano, a population of rice farmers. We predicted that Aeta mothers would produce breast milk with higher concentrations of four bioactive factors due to high infectious burdens. Further, we predicted that the concentrations of these factors would be highest in the cohort of women born in the early 1990s, when exposure to infectious disease was acute following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 1991. We analyzed levels of adiponectin, C-reactive protein, and epidermal growth factor in the milk of 24 Aeta and 31 Ilocano women and found no detectable differences, whereas levels of transforming growth factor-β2 were elevated among the Aeta, particularly as a function of maternal age. We found no difference between cohorts divided by the volcanic eruption (n = 43 born before, n = 12 born after). We discuss the implications of our findings for the terminal investment hypothesis and we suggest that the historical ecology of the Aeta is a promising model system for testing epigenetic hypotheses focused on the evolution of small body size.