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17 October 2012| PR 12/176

Maya research could benefit Britain’s immigrants


Dr Ines Varela-Silva, who is 5ft 1in, with a Maya woman and her grand-daughter. (Pic by Barry Bogin, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Loughborough University)

A Loughborough University human biologist believes her research on a Native American people called the Maya could benefit immigrants who settle in Britain.

Dr Ines Varela-Silva and her colleagues have been studying the Maya, whose people are scattered across countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and El Salvador, for 10 years.

They are staging a photographic exhibition of them at the university from October 22-29 to raise awareness of their plight to the research that has been conducted in the UK.

Dr Varela-Silva says their decline and health problems, which have resulted in the people shrinking in stature and suffering from obesity, are a warning for the government who need to be aware of the culture of immigrants to Britain if similar problems are to be avoided.

Dr Varela-Silva, from the Centre for Global Health and Human Development at the School of Sports, Exercise and Health Sciences, said: “We have evidence about the Maya’s health from the times when they were at their peak and much taller and stronger. You can see that from the bones at the archaeological sites.

“And then you know what decline, poverty, oppression, repression, misery and hard work can do to the health of the people. And how much all these negative factors can shrink them as a group. We also have solid evidence about the impact of migration on the health and nutritional status of the Maya

“By showing these pictures we are raising awareness, not just for the Maya but for other indigenous communities around the world.

“We are calling attention for the people of the UK because the UK is not a homogenous society any more.

“It has more and more immigrants from different parts of the world. So if you see the Maya studies as a blueprint of what happens to any human population in good and bad times, you can do more accurate predictions of what is awaiting this country with immigrants from different parts of the world.

“It can help the UK to do the best choices in terms of integrating the communities of migrants.

“There is a need for the host country to have a basic understanding of the culture of the people that are here, otherwise any kind of health promotion and education initiative will not reach those people.”

The Maya are thought to date back more than 4,000 years and reached their highest state of development in the Classic period, circa AD 250 to 900.

But their civilisation started to collapse around the eighth and ninth centuries due to overpopulation, internal warfare, the collapse of trade routes, disease and drought.

Most Maya now live in the poorest rural areas of Central America or in marginal urban areas, such as Merida, the capital of the state of Yucatan in Mexico. Some Maya are international migrants and are now found in Los Angeles, the state of Florida and elsewhere in America.

Dr Varela-Silva says that due to environmental factors the average size of a Mayan man is now 5ft 3in compared to 5ft 7in at their peak, a woman 4ft 7in compared to 5ft 2in. Obesity is also a problem, due in part to a diet which includes too much junk food high in fat and calories and carbonated beverages which are very low nutritional value but high in sugar.

Dr Varela-Silva is hopeful that the Maya will recover. “You have to be hopeful, yes we are,” she said.

“The basic conditions of the Maya are improving, slowly, but they are. At least the kids in the Yucatan are all vaccinated and water contamination is less of a problem than in the past.”

Dr Varela-Silva says Loughborough University boasts the biggest group of people in the UK studying the Maya, and that the Mexican government is paying for two PhD students to study at the university. Loughborough is also hosting two senior Mexican researchers on a one-year sabbatical. She hopes more Mexican students and scholars will follow.

Dr Varela-Silva and her colleagues will launch the science based photo-exhibition in the James France building at the university from October 22-29 as part of One World Week, a development education charity.

Called ‘Sharing Destiny: Science, The Maya And The End Of The World’, the exhibition will include nearly 30 pictures, with scientific summaries alongside them, and links to the papers that Dr Varela-Silva and her colleagues have published, and a new website, http://mayaproject.org.uk/

The exhibition, whose main sponsor is Santander Universities (with the support of the Loughborough University Graduate School) and co-sponsored by the Centre for Faith and Spirituality, will then move to Lisbon, Portugal, in November followed by Merida and then Indiantown in Florida next year.


For all media enquiries contact:

Chris Goddard
PR Officer
Loughborough University
T: 01509 22223491
E: C.J.Goddard@lboro.ac.uk 

Notes for editors:

1. Images are available from Chris Goddard.

2. Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It was awarded the coveted Sunday Times University of the Year 2008-09 title, and is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in national newspaper league tables. In the 2011 National Student Survey, Loughborough was voted one of the top universities in the UK, and has topped the Times Higher Education league for the Best Student Experience in England every year since the poll's inception in 2006. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, the University has been awarded six Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

Loughborough is also the UK’s premier university for sport. It has perhaps the best integrated sports development environment in the world and is home to some of the country’s leading coaches, sports scientists and support staff. It also has the country’s largest concentration of world-class training facilities across a wide range of sports.

It is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.

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