Summer 2007

SCIE 639
Evolutionary Perspectives on the Human Diet


06/25/2007 - 08/03/2007
Tuesday & Thursday 07:00 PM - 09:30 PM

Science Tower 139

Diet and nutrition are favorite subjects of the news media and popular literature. Both new "dietary lifestyles" such as Atkins, Pritkin, South Beach, and well-established lifestyles such as vegetarianism and veganism are regularly endorsed as the natural human diet, and as such, cures to America's affliction with diseases of abundance (obesity, diabetes, and arteriosclerosis).

But is there a natural human diet? What does our evolutionary history reveal about our dietary adaptations? What do our current morphology and physiology indicate? How do genes and disease influence diet, and vice versa? What role does culture play in defining diet, be it adaptive or not, and are Americans alone in their wayward eating habits, or are other cultures also nutritionally challenged?

This course pursues these questions by reviewing research on the human diet from the fields of primatology, palaeoanthropology, archaeology, paleopathology, cultural anthropology, and nutrition. We begin with overviews of the scientific method, evolutionary theory, and nutrition. Next, we explore the evolutionary roots of our basic dietary adaptations--tooth form and gut morphology--with readings on the behavior and physiology of non-human primates, in particular, the apes, and on the fossil evidence for these adaptations in our own lineage, the Hominidae. Readings from archaeology provide information on the transformation of humans from primarily hunter-gatherers, prior to 12,000 years ago, to agriculturalists, the principal modern subsistence mode. Readings on bone chemistry and also on archaeological evidence of subsistence activities explain how we know what we know about prehistoric diet. Research from the field of paleopathology, the study of disease and injury in prehistoric populations, informs us of the costs and benefits of various subsistence lifestyles as represented by specific prehistoric and historic populations. In exploring the modern human diet, we look to cultural anthropology for perspectives on food and social identity, biosocial responses to famine and surplus, colonialism and modernization, and the role of social movements in dietary change. Lastly, we critically evaluate the claims of several popular contemporary diets (e.g., Atkins) with an eye toward assessing what is, after all, the natural human diet.

Readings will be selected articles from the primary literature including journal articles from the primary scientific literature (primatology, palaeoanthropology, archaeology, nutrition, cultural anthropology), and possibly a few book chapters (primary literature).

Students are responsible for participating in discussions, posting online responses to the weekly reading assignments, and writing a research paper on a topic chosen in consultation with the instructor. The writing process will be supervised in steps, from the formulation of the topic and argument, through the writing of one graded draft, and the final graded paper.

A syllabus for this course is available at:
Course Syllabus

Jolee West (B.A., M.A., Ph.D. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) is Director of Academic Computing Services and Digital Projects at Wesleyan University, and a Research Affiliate of the Department of Anthropology. She has conducted archaeological and taphonomic research in Illinois and northern Kenya. Specializing in physical anthropology, faunal analysis and archaeological taphonomy, she has published on topics in forensic anthropology, Illinois bioarchaeology, and archaeological and palaeontological taphonomy. Click here for more information about Jolee West.


Consent of Instructor Required: No

Format: Seminar

Level: GLSP Credits: 3 Enrollment Limit: 18

Texts to purchase for this course:

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