UMass Amherst Anthropologist Elected to Prestigious Society for Human Ecology Work in Peru and Mexico

December 3, 1997


AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts anthropology professor R. Brooke Thomas has been elected to the rank of fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Thomas will be presented with an official certificate and a gold rosette pin Feb. 14 at a special ceremony to be held during the 1998 AAAS Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

Thomas was elected for his work on human ecology and the health of Latin American populations in two regions currently experiencing great social and economic change, the Andes of Peru and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

"This is an honor," says Thomas. "It recognizes over three decades of research in examining how humans adjust to change."

A specialist in biological anthropology, Thomas originally focused on human adaptation to high altitude. Beginning in the early 1960s, Thomas visited a number of villages in the high Andes of Peru, each located 14,000 feet above sea level. By examining the local populations’ adaptations to hypoxic stress (low oxygen availability at high altitude), Thomas hoped to uncover an example of natural selection in humans. His research, however, soon led him to broader questions about the adaptive process.

"The people of the high Andes are relatively isolated, and living under harsh hypoxic conditions, so it seemed an ideal chance to explore genetic adaptation to environmental stress," Thomas says. "It soon became apparent, however, that their adaptations were not genetic, but acquired in the course of growing up. And that led us to explore other factors."

While the villagers had larger-than-typical lungs and hearts to compensate for the lack of oxygen, Thomas found that cultural adaptations were as important as biological ones. Combining his interest in hypoxic stress with considerations of the cold and intermittent drought conditions of the region, Thomas began to focus on agriculture, clothing, and shelter as well as oxygen-related problems. Soon, he was also exploring the effects of cultural disintegration caused first by the Spaniards and then the Peruvian government, while looking as well at the economic hardships created by large ranches which had taken over most of the region. The findings were both startling and prophetic.

"We discovered that the people of the region were trying to adapt biologically and behaviorally to increasingly desperate circumstances and that they were probably reaching a breaking point of sorts," Thomas says. "While we didn’t exactly predict a revolution, we saw extreme vulnerability and disillusion. And it wasn’t long before we were proven right."

In fact, in the mid-1980s, Thomas was forced to abandon his research because guerrillas from the Shining Path movement had made the region unsafe. Other than returning recently to attend the wedding of old friends, Thomas has basically not been to Peru for the past decade. He does, however, plan to continue his research in the near future to assess the consequences of the revolution.

In the interim, Thomas has taken his interest in human bio-cultural daptation and relocated it to another region experiencing a different set of changes, the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico, where he is exploring the effects of tourism on indigenous Mayan Indian communities around cities such as Cancun. By looking at how the Mayans’ diet, health, and self-perceptions are rapidly changing in their new role as service workers in resorts in the region, Thomas hopes to better understand how American tourists are involvedin the ‘development’ of other peoples. "It’s like holding a mirror up to ourselves - what we see is scary," he says.

Thomas joins 270 other AAAS members nationwide who were awarded the distinction of fellow this year. The honor is given for efforts toward advancing science or fostering applications that are deemed scientifically or socially distinguished.

Founded in 1848, the AAAS represents the world’s largest federation of scientists and has more than 144,000 individual members. The tradition of AAAS fellows distinction began in 1874.

Thomas has been a University professor since 1975. His current research in the Yucatan Peninsula is being conducted along with UMass anthropology professor Oriol Pi-Sunyer and UMass communication professor Henry Geddes.