Coren Apicella


Apicella, a biological anthropologist in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard, studies cooperation and attraction by looking at the Hadza, a nomadic people in rural Tanzania.

Q. What is so interesting about the Hadza?

A. They live like humans lived for the majority of our existence, as hunter-gatherers. The Hadza provide us a window into our past.

Q. How do they give us a better understanding of why we find certain qualities attractive in each other?

A. The Hadza are ideal because they’re cut off from medical and cosmetic technology and they are what we call a natural fertility population, so they don’t use birth control. We are influenced a lot here by what we see in the media and the Hadza are really isolated.


Q. And what kinds of things have you learned about attractiveness from studying them?

A. There are some things that are universally preferred. In 2006, I published a study showing that men with lower-pitched voices had more children. Symmetrical facial features - they actually have a stronger preference for symmetry than we do. They prefer average Hadza faces; they don’t prefer average European faces. It seems that humans have this preference for the average of what they see.

Q. Have you learned anything about yourself by studying them?

A. When I’m out there, I’m actually really happy. The things I worry about here, they don’t come into my mind. I feel very healthy.

Q. You spent most of the summer of 2010 living with the Hadza. What is it like to be with them, sleeping in the wild savannah woodland, so far from Western civilization?

A. I’m faced with a lot of physical problems when I’m out there - worrying about water, fuel, food, animals. There’s no showering for weeks at a time. I use baby wipes to clean myself - three a day. I can function and I can be happy with very little.


Q. And when you come back?

A. I come back to all my stuff and my apartment. I go through a process of throwing things out or giving things away.

Q. Have you had any terrifying moments out in the field?

A. We had to run from elephants in the middle of the night [once]. I was in my PJs. I had my flip-flops on. There was no moon. I remember being so scared. I remember looking up at the sky, thinking where am I, what am I doing? Cambridge seemed so far away.

Q. When you studied cooperation, you found that people who liked to cooperate clustered together, as did people who weren’t as cooperative. What’s the importance of that?

A. We see so many examples of people cooperating in modern life, maybe without this [ancient] ability to cluster with other cooperators, we wouldn’t be so cooperative today.

Q. Are the Hadza’s interpersonal relationships different from ours?

A. They’re mostly monogamous. There are about 2 percent who have more than one wife; but those marriages aren’t stable. They’re very similar to us in terms of relationships.

Q. Is there homosexuality?

A. They say it doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Q. Did you have a hard time convincing the Hadza to participate in your research?

A. They’re really excited when you come. I bring them culturally appropriate gifts. Last time I brought blankets, because it gets really cold. They also really liked looking at the pictures [of themselves and their friends that I showed them]. They’ve never really seen photographs of themselves. They see [pictures of] their friends who live really far away and they haven’t seen in a really long time.


Q. Do you see yourself going back?

A. I will go back. They’re so extraordinary.


This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at Karen@KarenWeintraub.com.