November 2021

Ecology of fear in Guatemala

«People want the right to survive, to live without fear»
(Doña Petrona, village of Xe’caj, Guatemala, 1994)


Guatemala is a geographically small nation of Central America and home to about 18 million people, which is only 0.23% of the global population. The Maya people make-up at least 50% of the population and are the largest indigenous ethnic group in all the Americas. Since the arrival of the Spanish and other Europeans in the year 1500CE, the Maya have suffered more than 500 years of violence and insecurity. These sources of fear afflict the Maya today.

Most of the population lives in poverty and suffers insecurities related to food, housing, employment, education, and health care. The photograph above right shows a «W“wanted poster»” («Se Busca»») for Rios Montt, dictator of Guatemala 1982-83 and congressman to 2012. He was convicted of genocide in 2013 of trying to exterminate the Ixil Maya, whose villages were wiped out by his military forces. A higher court overturned the conviction and Rios Montt served little time in jail. He died in 2018 at age 91. Below the wanted poster are photographs of a few victims, including priests, nuns, students, and intellectuals. Thousands of impoverished rural Maya people were also killed.  The top right photograph shows Maya Achi women in 2019 protesting against war crimes in Guatemala and asking for the conviction of those responsible. The lower right photograph shows primary school pupils from the town (municipalidad) de San Pedro Sacatepequez.

Fear, violence, and insecurity adversely impact the growth and development of these children. More than half are stunted (very low height for their age) at school entry. Less than one of every 100 students completes the six years of primary school. However, the ecology of fear affects all families and their children. People from wealthy families live in the fear of kidnappings for ransom and robberies, violence, and murder are common. World Health Organization data finds that 17% of under 5-year-old children of the wealthiest 20% of all families are stunted. These children have ample food, health care, and education. Less than 1.5% are expected to be stunted, but the toxic effect of chronic fear appears to slow their growth.

It has been well-known from more than a three centuries of research that chronic, toxic stress slows or stops skeletal growth.  The medical literature often calls this type of stunting «psychosocial growth delay». Recent research finds that stress hormones, such as cortisol, inhibit the production and action of the major bone growth hormones, especially growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1. Even well-nourished and otherwise healthy girls and boys suffer from growth delay and stunting when they live in an ecology of fear and are exposed to chronic, toxic stress. Research with Maya families who migrated to the United States finds that their children are about 11 cm taller than their age-mates in Guatemala. Previous studies show that better nutrition and health explain about 5 cm of the increase. The reduction of chronic, toxic stress and the change from an «ecology of fear» to an «ecology of hope» accounts for the additional 6 cm of height increase.


Barry Bogin is Professor Emeritus of Biological Anthropology of the School of Sport, Exercise & Health Sciences, Loughborough University (UK) and William E Stirton Professor Emeritus of Anthropology of the University of Michigan-Dearborn (USA), and Member of the UCSD/Salk Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny, USA. In the Virtual Museum of Human Ecology you can visit his Room entitle «The Ages of Life», included in the Exhibition space Life cycle: Biological expression, cultural construction. The 3rd edition of his book Patterns of Human Growth (Cambridge University Press) has appear in 2020.

More details about the Ecology of Fear in Guatemala are described in the Open Access article by the author “Fear, violence, inequality and stunting in Guatemala” (American Journal of Human Biology, 2021).