University of Minnesota

William Connor on the Tarahumara Indians

[ed. When we asked Bill Connor how he came to study the fascinating Tarahumara population of Mexico, that is, the beer-drinking, distance-running native tribe with extremely low blood cholesterol levels, he told us this story.]

A friend of mine in Los Angeles said, “I’ve been to see the Tarahumara and they don’t seem to have coronary disease. Why don’t we take our sons and just go down there and look around?

[ed. Asked how he made contact with these endangered people of the Copper Canyon in the Sierras, he recounted:]

We made connections through Father Luis Verplancken, a Jesuit priest [who lived with them for decades and] was coming here to Portland to give a talk before a group of people who contribute to the Tarahumaras. The group have an annual meeting and auction [to raise funds] because the Tarahumaras go quite hungry. They are still pretty isolated and Mexicans are coming in and cutting down their trees. So it’s not a good thing; the same sort of exploitation we did with our American Indians.

So we went down there and found a hospital at Sisagucci, which is in the backwoods. You get there by a 30-mile, rough jeep road. But the [Catholic] sisters are there and the school is there, where they translated The Bible into the Tarahumara language. It’s euphonic language. They don’t have a written language. We told them we were doctors and they asked, “Would you work a little in the hospital?” So the week or so we were there we saw some patients and then asked them, “Can we do some studies of the Tarahumara?” And they said, “The people who study them come, they gather information and then they leave and we never hear from them again. Would you be that kind?’

“We promised that we would come and gather information and send it back to them. Then we made acquaintance with Bishop Liguno, now deceased, and I guess he was impressed that we were sincere. So he said we should come back. Which we did, with a larger team including my son and Rene Melaneaux who speaks good Spanish, and Martha McMurray, the dietitian, who spent a lot of time there, and another, Bonnie Reese, who spoke Spanish. We had another guy who translated Spanish for us. We simply went and observed and persuaded them to let us have a blood specimen and take their blood pressure and weigh them. They gave their age, but, of course, the Tarahumaras count differently. Age is always a question in people who don’t have a written language.”

I had a backpack and we might draw blood sitting on a stone in a farmer’s field. We stayed in the village of Sisagucci and at night the Tarahumaras would get drunk. Not every night, just on weekends, in the rhythm of “primitive” societies, and using not corn whiskey, but beer, ordinary Mexican bottled beer. They make their own corn whisky, which they ferment and which goes bad in two or three days so they have to drink it up, quickly [during ceremonial occasions].

So that was the survey and we wrote an article on their [low] lipoprotein and blood pressure levels.

[ed. Asked about their endurance-running tradition Connor said they had indications of it, but didn’t actually observe it. The Tarahumara run traditionally for communication between their widely separate villages, but also ceremonially, for long distances, even several days, kicking a ball (for the men) or rolling hoops (for the women).

Asked about their dietary adequacy of essential fatty acids, Connor said:]

When you look at the diet of people and you know the requirements for linoleic acid and linolenic acid, it becomes apparent that even the Tarahumaras with their corn and beans had plenty of essential fatty acids. I think the idea that essential fatty acids will lower the plasma cholesterol concentration when compared with saturated fats is certainly true. Even compared with olive oil. This is why I went to the Rockefeller to see if corn oil would produce an increase in the fecal sterols. In other words, the sum of cholesterol in bile acid during a given period of time, might account for the fall in the cholesterol level. Maybe increased excretion. And then another postulated mechanism was that cholesterol went into the tissues, which wouldn’t be good. But it seemed more was excreted after corn oil. I think that gets us then into which of the polys would be important: linolenic and linoleic and arachidonic acid vs. the omega 3s. (Henry Blackburn)


Connor, William and Connor, Sonja in an interview conducted by Henry Blackburn, 2002. History of Cardiovascular Epidemiology Archive, University of Minnesota.