Thomas Leatherman Delivers Prized Biological Anthropology Lecture at Oxford
Prior to November 8, 2019, Thomas Leatherman, professor of anthropology, had only visited the University of Oxford once before as a tourist. He never expected his second visit would be to deliver the 2019 Geoffrey Harrison Prize Lecture. But he did exactly that.
Leatherman is just the third person to win the Harrison Prize Lecture, an award conferred to individuals who have made a substantial and sustained contribution to the study of the human biology of living populations and especially biosocial sciences.
"I am an advocate for a biocultural anthropology that attempts to integrate biology and social life"
“My early work focused on the reproduction of poverty and poor health among agro-pastoralists of the southern Andes in the District of Nuñoa, the site of long-running research on the biology of high altitude populations,” said Leatherman. “More recent ethnographic research and anthropometric analyses have demonstrated the severe impact of civil war on the lives and health of the Nuñoan population, and their enhanced well-being in post-conflict Peru.”
Essentially, Leatherman’s research sits at the intersection of human biology and nutritional and medical anthropologies, both in the US and Latin America. He has spent decades analyzing vulnerable populations, and how major forces like urbanization, nutritional infrastructure, and civil war have shaped them.
There’s a lot to unpack with Leatherman’s research. When it comes to human biology and anthropological studies, nuances abound. To get a better sense of why his work is important and how it’s constantly changing, we spoke with Leatherman before he flew to Oxford.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What’s the elevator pitch version of your research?
My research focuses on the themes of social change, inequalities, and health in Latin America and the US. I have worked primarily in the Andes of Peru and Yucatan of Mexico. In both locales, I have worked with indigenous communities undergoing rapid social and economic change and how these changes impact nutrition and health. My work in Peru focused on the ways poverty influenced health but also how poor health contributed to poverty. In the Yucatan, I have been particularly interested in the nutritional effects of dietary change in contexts of a tourist economy. One project there – the Coca-colonization of Yucatec Mayan diets – looked at the commercialization of food systems and diet change and the rise in obesity.
How has the human biology/anthropology field evolved since you started out?
The field of anthropology is constantly changing and the study of human biology in anthropology has changed immensely since I started. Trends over the past decades include a greater focus on social and economic processes that shape biology and human health, better recognition of the social contexts of science, and a trend toward greater community engagement in our research. There are also many new field-based and minimally invasive ways to collect biological information, for example on the immune system, epigenetics, and the microbiome. This allows us to better understand how social factors “get under the skin” and impact biology.
Why is this field important in today’s world?
I am an advocate for a biocultural anthropology that attempts to integrate biology and social life by showing how global forces shape local settings and local biology and health. There are so many issues today – from climate change, unending conflicts, and rising social inequalities – that are impacting our society and our biology and health, a biocultural approach is needed now more than ever.
You’re the third person to receive the Geoffrey Harrison Prize Lecture. How does it feel?
It is an incredible honor. Geoffrey Harrison and his colleagues at Oxford were major figures in developing the study of human biology in anthropology. They were also early advocates for a biosocial approach. He was an icon in the field and so delivering a lecture in his name is incredibly exciting.