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Review article: Biomedical intelligence

Vol. 142 No. 2526 (2012)

Lessons from the life history of natural fertility societies on child growth and maturation

  • Aneta Monika Gawlik
  • Ze'ev Hochberg
Cite this as:
Swiss Med Wkly. 2012;142:w13600


During the evolution of hominids, childhood and adolescence have been added as new life-history phases. The transition from infancy to childhood (ICT) confers a predictive adaptive response to energetic cues that strongly influence adult height, whereas the transition from juvenility to adolescence establishes longevity and the age of fertility. Evolutionary short-term adaptations to energy crises apparently use epigenetic mechanisms that defer the ICT, culminating in short stature. The study of hunter-gatherers gives us an indication of pre-demographic transition populations and their life style that prevailed for 99% of homo’s evolution. The secular trend for receding age of pubertal development has been an adaptive response to positive environmental cues in terms of energy balance. In natural fertility preindustrial societies with limited access to modern contraception and health care, and whose economies are primarily subsistence-based, most resources are invested as somatic capital in human body size and fertility. Here we review results from databases for natural fertility societies, with the information on life history, population density, height and body mass, indices of adolescence and fertility. By using them it was possible to verify the ICT model as well as to explore pubertal parameters that are related to evolutionary fitness. They confirmed that body size was adaptively smaller in hostile environments, and was tightly associated with reproductive fitness.


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