Mother knows best: Plant knowledge key to childhood health in remote Amazon

Waltham, MA In a remote area of the Amazon, globalization is threatening the time-honored transmission of plant knowledge from generation to generation, with adverse effects on childhood health and nutrition. In a novel study published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers report that parents, and especially mothers, who know more about plants and how to use them, have healthier children, independent of other factors such as education, market participation or acculturation.

The researchers, from the universities of Brandeis, Northwestern, Georgia (Athens), and Autonomous University of Barcelona, studied the Tsimane', an indigenous horticulturalist and foraging society in the lowlands of Bolivia who use local plants daily for medicine, firewood, construction and food. The Tsimane' rely on wild and domesticated plants for more than half of their household consumption, while purchased goods account for a tiny fraction of consumption.

"Like other remote rural populations around the world, the Tsimane' must rely on their ability to exploit natural resources to maintain the health of their children," said Victoria Reyes-Garca, PhD, coauthor and visiting researcher at Brandeis University. "However, many Tsimane' are pursuing new economic opportunities that undermine this aspect of their culture. It seems to be one of the many unintended consequences of globalization."

The study evaluated the health of 330 Tsimane' two-to-ten year-olds and interviewed their mothers and fathers to assess their ethnobotanical skills and knowledge. Researchers looked at three measures of child health: their immune function, as measured in C-reactive protein levels; skinfold thickness, to estimate fat stores, and height-for-age, to assess stunted growth.

Reyes-Garca explained that mothers who had knowledge of local plants well above the average were more likely to have children with better health, whe

Contact: Laura Gardner
Brandeis University

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