Department of Anthropology

Tobacco, cannabis, parasites, and life history strategies in hunter-gatherers from the Central African Republic

Roulette CJ and Hagen EH 2012. Tobacco, cannabis, parasites, and life history strategies in hunter-gatherers from the Central African Republic. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Supp.

Tobacco use is responsible for 20% of mortality in the US and Europe, 12% of global mortality, and, in developed countries, is the single largest contributor to disease burden. Despite these statistics, the widespread recreational use of tobacco and other psychoactive plant drugs has received little attention from biological anthropologists.

Studies in Western societies find that substance use is associated with a suite of risk-taking behaviors and is often predicted by impulsivity constructs. There is also a cross-national male bias in substance use. Although nicotine is not thought to be a carcinogen or the direct cause of chronic tobacco-related health problems, it is nevertheless a potent neurotoxin, with a toxicity in humans comparable to hydrogen cyanide. It is an equally potent neuroteratogen, with negative effects on the development of the central and peripheral nervous systems in fetuses, children and adolescents. Nicotine, THC, and other components of tobacco and cannabis also have antiparasitic properties.

We therefore investigated the interaction of substance use and age- and sex-specific life history strategies linked to toxin avoidance, parasite load, risk seeking, and competition for mates among a population of Aka forest foragers in the Central African Republic. Data include demographic information on 1088 Aka, peer ratings of substance use for 150 Aka, and self-reports, saliva and urine samples from 68 Aka. Results generally support a life history and sexual selection theory approach to substance use.