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Modern humans have more fragile skeletons than other hominins, which may result from physical inactivity. Here, we test whether reproductive effort also compromises bone strength, by measuring using computed tomography thoracic vertebral bone mineral density (BMD) and fracture prevalence among physically active Tsimane forager-horticulturalists. Earlier onset of reproduction and shorter interbirth intervals are associated with reduced BMD for women. Tsimane BMD is lower versus Americans, but only for women, contrary to simple predictions relying on inactivity to explain skeletal fragility. Minimal BMD differences exist between Tsimane and American men, suggesting that systemic factors other than fertility (e.g. diet) do not easily explain Tsimane women’s lower BMD. Tsimane fracture prevalence is also higher versus Americans. Lower BMD increases Tsimane fracture risk, but only for women, suggesting a role of weak bone in women’s fracture etiology. Our results highlight the role of sex-specific mechanisms underlying skeletal fragility that operate long before menopause.


This article was originally published in Elife, volume 16, issue 8, in 2019.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.