A Half Century of High-Altitude Studies in Anthropology: Introduction to the Plenary Session


Correspondence to: Michael A. Little, Department of Anthropology, Binghamton University, State University of New York, 13902-6000 Binghamton, NY, USA. E-mail: mlittle@binghamton.edu


Until 50 years ago, high-altitude terrestrial research was conducted largely within the realm of environmental physiology, where interests were focused on physiological mechanisms and mountain exploration. Scientists from the United States, Europe, and Peru had developed sophisticated physiological models of adaptation and acclimatization to the hypoxia of high altitude, but very little research had been conducted on permanent residents, particularly natives of high altitude in the two major regions of the world—the Andes and the Himalayas. In 1962, Raul T. Baker initiated a project at the Pennsylvania State University to explore the responses of indigenous Peruvians to the major stresses at altitude: hypoxia and cold. Approaches to this early research were anthropological in perspective and centered on population-level studies with an evolutionary approach. Studies were conducted by applying a combination of physiological experimental methods, simulated field experiments, and extended anthropological field observations. Early hypotheses at this time were that heredity played a major role in the adaptive complexes in native high-altitude residents. These early hypotheses were later modified to incorporate or replace the genetic hypotheses with developmental adaptation models. A half century of research within anthropology and research in other fields has presented a vastly more complex and integrated picture of high-altitude adaptation in native residents. Recent studies incorporate physiology and oxygen transport, population and molecular genetics, reproduction, growth, and development. The history and current status of high-altitude research and its anthropological applications are treated in papers from this plenary symposium. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 25:148–150, 2013. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.