Climate Change and Invisible Suffering: Transgenerational Impacts of Traumatic Maternal Experiences of Extreme Drought

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Evidence is accumulating that the adverse impacts of climate change are unevenly distributed, affecting the world’s most vulnerable populations disproportionately. Studies that integrate examinations of culturally shaped lived experiences with their biological consequences promise to contribute important knowledge about how humans understand and recover from climate-based events across generations. In 2009, an extreme drought in northern Kenya decimated livestock, creating hunger that attracted international attention. Here we report initial findings of an ongoing, same-sex sibling epigenetic study examining the effects of maternal exposure to the 2009 drought on Samburu pastoralist children (N to date = 75 mothers; 75 sibling pairs (150 children)). Mothers reported engaging in risky activities during their 2009 pregnancies compared to pregnancies of same-sex children conceived 2+ years after the drought. Additionally, mothers reported more traumas of other kinds during their 2009 pregnancies, particularly interpersonal violence, forced labor, and food withholding by male kin and even male neighbors (p = .0276 for combined trauma score). This resulted for many in lminchich, a Samburu form of prolonged emotional distress. Children from the 2009 pregnancies differ in health outcomes from their post-drought siblings, qualitatively with respect to reported illnesses, and quantitatively with respect to BMI (p = .0001 for BMI z-scores based on WHO standards). We provide ethnographic “thick” description of gender-inequality and drought-induced forms of invisible suffering that are transgenerationally sedimented in children’s bodies. We also consider both evolutionary and humanitarian perspectives of human-animal interactive responses to extreme climate events.

This research was funded by National Science Foundation Award #1728743, "A Bio-Cultural Investigation of Intergenerational Epigenetic Mechanisms" (Bilinda Straight, PI) and Western Michigan University FRACAA.


This poster was presented at the 88th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2019) March 29 in Cleveland, OH.

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