Labour's pain: strenuous subsistence work, mechanical wear-and-tear and musculoskeletal pain in a non-industrialized population

Jonathan Stieglitz, Yoann Buoro, Bret A. Beheim, Benjamin C. Trumble, Hillard Kaplan, and Michael Gurven


Musculoskeletal pain is the most debilitating human health condition. Neurophysiological pain mechanisms are highly conserved and promote somatic maintenance and learning to avoid future harm. However, some chronic pain might be more common owing to mismatches between modern lifestyles and traits that originally evolved under distinct premodern conditions. To inform assumptions about factors affecting chronic pain vulnerability prior to industrialization, we assess pain prevalence, perceived causes, and predictors among Tsimane forager-horticulturalists. Habitual subsistence work is the primary reported cause of pain throughout life for both sexes, and pain is more common with age, especially in the back, and for those with more musculoskeletal problems. Sex differences in pain are relatively weak, and we find no association between women's reproductive history and pain, contrary to the hypothesis that reproduction causes women's greater pain susceptibility. Age-standardized current pain prevalence is 1.7–8.2 times higher for Tsimane than other select populations, and Tsimane chronic pain prevalence is within the range of variation observed elsewhere. Chronic low back pain is not a ‘mismatch disease’ limited to post-industrialized populations. Hominin musculoskeletal changes supporting bipedalism probably imposed health costs, which, after millions of years of evolution, remain an epidemiological burden that may be exacerbated by modern conditions.

Published in

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 290, n. 1998, May 2023