Links Between Children's Health And Wealth Confusing Among African Pastoralists

February 18, 1997

Seattle, Wash. -- Apparent wealth is not necessarily a good indicator of children's health among pastoralists in Africa, according to a Penn State anthropologist.

A study of the Herero, a group of pastoralists who herd cattle and goats in the northern fringe of the Kalahari Desert of northwestern Botswana in southern Africa, suggests that apparent wealth, in the form of dairy cattle, may not be a good indicator of the health of children below the age of 10.

"The Herero are generally prosperous, but there are a wide range of livestock holdings among families," says Dr. Renee L. Pennington, research associate in anthropology. "There are also differences in survival of children among women."

The normal assumption would be that the wealthier the family, the healthier and more likely to survive the children. "Previous research shows that Herero women have differences in offspring survival. Some women successfully raise children while others are less successful," says Pennington. "We are trying to determine if these differences in offspring survival are caused by behavioral characteristics of the mothers, or environmental factors like poor nutrition or disease," she told attendees today (Feb 18) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

A study of heights, weights, and triceps skin fold measurements -- used as an indication of body fat -- showed that children between the ages of 2.5 and 9.5 from the wealthiest families had less body fat than those in the less wealthy families.

"Children under age 2.5 from cattle rich households have thicker triceps skinfolds, are heavier and taller for their age than children from cattle poor households," says Pennington. "From age 2.5 to 9.5, the reverse holds."

This suggests that children from the less wealthy families have a better chance of survival, but, because of the overall prosperity of the Herero, mortality of children above one year of age is very low among all children.

Pennington only used children up to age 10 because at puberty, Herero women begin to gain weight and reach an average weight of 153 pounds, while most men remain slender.

"It may be that the number of dairy cattle are not really a good indication of wealth," says Pennington. "But, the Herero themselves seem to value wealth by number of cattle."

Another possibility might be that the wealthier children work harder and therefore have less stored fat, or the wealthier children are competing with more calves intended to increase the already bountiful flocks.

"If dairy cattle are an indication of wealth, then these results are counterintuitive," says Pennington. "There must be some other factor influence the health of these children."

Penn State

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