Spotlight on… Colette Berbesque

Colette Berbesque

Position: Reader in Human Ecology at the University of Roehampton

Bio: Born in the state of Indiana in the USA, Colette completed her PhD in the Department of Anthropology at Florida State University in 2010 with a dissertation on sex differences in food preferences, eating frequency and dental attrition amongst the Hadza of Tanzania, one of the last extant hunter-gatherer populations. She moved to London in 2010 to take up her position at Roehampton.

Research interests: Colette’s research interests centre on human ecology, the evolution of the hominin diet, and the evolution of cooperation, prestige, and hierarchy. Her research has included fieldwork with the Hadza. Through analysis of behavioural data from the Hadza, as well as from other hunter-gatherer groups, she investigates aspects of human evolution, including: strategies of food procurement and provisioning, cooperation, reputation, and sexual selection and gender.

Most significant work: Hunter-gatherers are typically seen as more prone to famines than agriculturalists. However, in a 2014 publication, Colette and her colleagues examined famine frequency and severity across a large cross-cultural database and found that once habitat quality is controlled for, hunter-gatherers actually have significantly LESS famine than other subsistence modes. These findings challenge fundamental assumptions about how the human diet evolved and our understanding of recent increases in obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Latest project: With newly graduated Ph.D., Piotr Fedurek, Colette is investigating the relationship between social status (prestige) and long-term stress in the Hadza.  Many researchers believe that status hierarchy is present in all human and primate societies.  This may be the case, however, links between Social Status and health have not yet been established in relatively ‘egalitarian’ communities, like the Hadza.  The degree of inequality in status may be an important factor for psychosocial stress, and thus for stress-related disease.

Teaching: Colette convenes two anthropology modules: ‘Human Ecology and Adaptation’ and ‘Hunter Gatherers and Human Evolution’. The former covers the essentials of human diversity and adaptation; the latter module provides insight into how hunters and gatherers evolved, looking at their diet, foraging practices, technology, residences, mobility, reproduction, cooperation and social organisation. She also teaches extensively into other programmes in the Department of Life Sciences.  In 2019, Colette received a Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Did you know…?

1) that Colette’s given name is actually Julia, which is why she is listed as ‘J.C. Berbesque’ on her publications;

2) that if you do a search on Colette’s name on Google, it tries to autocorrect her last name to ‘Barbeque’;

3) that the Hadza gave her the nickname ‘Dada Kisu’ – Swahili for ‘Sister Knife’, because she carries a field knife.

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