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Abstract

The average birth weight in the contemporary African-American population is about 250 g lower than the average birth weight of European Americans. Differences in genetic and socioeconomic factors present between these two groups can explain only part of birth weight variation. I propose a hypothesis that the low birth weight of contemporary African Americans not only results from the difference in present exposure to lifestyle factors known to affect fetal development but also from conditions experienced during the period of slavery. Slaves had poor nutritional status during all stages of life because of the inadequate dietary intake accompanied by high energetic costs of physical work and infectious diseases. The concept of “fetal programming” suggests that physiology and metabolism including growth and fat accumulation of the developing fetus, and, thus its birth weight, depend on intergenerational signal of environmental quality passed through generations of matrilinear ancestors. I suggest that several generations that have passed since the abolition of slavery in the United States (1865) has not been enough to obliterate the impact of slavery on the current biological and health condition of the African-American population. Am. J. Hum. Biol., 2009. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.