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By Lisa Thiegs

Primate diets may provide insight into how human diets have evolved. Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Policy Michael Wasserman began studying the red colobus monkey in 2007 in Uganda to evaluate its consumption of naturally occurring phytoestrogens from plants. These phytoestrogens, which correlate with changes in hormones and behaviors in monkeys, may also have been present in early hunter-gatherer diets.

If humans began eating phytoestrogens after the advent of modern agriculture, then the effects are likely to be more dramatic than if there’s a long evolutionary history between our ancestors and these types of plants.

“If humans began eating phytoestrogens after the advent of modern agriculture, then the effects are likely to be more dramatic than if there’s a long evolutionary history between our ancestors and these types of plants,” Wasserman says.

This summer, Wasserman is collaborating with Karline Janmaat, a Dutch researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who is studying a traditional hunting-and-gathering society in the Republic of Congo. She is looking at their cognitive abilities related to their diets. “She will be collecting plants for nutritional analysis, and I’ll be using them to look for phytoestrogens in their diets — to potentially see what the effects of those compounds are on physiology and behavior in humans,” Wasserman says.

It will give me a bigger picture of how common it is for a primate species to eat these types of plants and how common it is for these plants to have an effect on the primate.

Wasserman also envisions a long-term project that includes researching primate communities in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. This will widen the scope beyond one species and give a better understanding of an evolutionary relationship between primates and plants that produce estrogenic compounds. “It will give me a bigger picture of how common it is for a primate species to eat these types of plants and how common it is for these plants to have an effect on the primate,” Wasserman says. “You can use the data from primates to better inform us about human health. Such research is relevant today considering the prevalence of soy in our processed foods and endocrine-disrupting compounds in many of the synthetic chemicals we use in our day-to-day lives.”