We often assume that obesity and associated metabolic problems and diseases (type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases) were rare until the last century, and largely the preserve of the wealthy and privileged in the past.
While an increase in rates of obesity and metabolic disorders in recent decades is undeniable, the assumption that this is a largely recent phenomenon underpins our current understanding, shaping how we research causes and treatment and wider societal perspectives on body size.
However, depictions of obese people date back over 20,000 years to our hunter-gatherer predecessors and historical records attest the antiquity of metabolic disorders over millennia. New theoretical perspectives that recognise the role of early life conditions and intergenerational factors in shaping lifelong metabolism, body size and composition suggest that in the past metabolic disorders may have been more common than we currently recognise.
Developments in metabolomics, proteomics, lipidomics, genetics, and new lines of archaeological investigation, as well as insights from evolutionary perspectives and from animal models offer immense potential to revisit our understanding of, and evidence for, obesity and related conditions in the human past.
This interdisciplinary event, was organised by the Cambridge Metabolic Network in collaboration with the Department of Archaeology, and drew together perspectives on obesity and metabolism from deep history to the present day. Through a series of keynote talks, discussions and flash talks, it provided a forum for exchange of ideas across disciplines to stimulate new perspectives on how the past can inform the present, and the present can inform the past. Ultimately, the aim was to improve our understanding of the causes, prevention and treatment of metabolic disorders.
The event was extremely successful given that we were restricted to an online format. It was attended by 194 participants from around the globe representative of wide-ranging interest and disciplines.
In addition to the main presentations which were excellent, we also had twelve excellent flash talks from those submitting abstracts which were incredibly effective at getting ideas across. The Q&A sessions were very dynamic indeed with some very engaging discussions which continued using the Wonder platform, over lunch and after the event – the latter was still going past 6pm.
Importantly too, early conversations about possible collaborations and ideas for new research projects and sharing of expertise were also happening which we will encourage of course and hopefully will see bear fruit.
Huge thanks to the programme committee including Giles Yeo, Sue Ozanne, Antonia Hufnagel and Alex Mörseburg from the IMS-MRL and Matthew Collins and Emma Pomeroy from Archaeology.
A few comments from participants on chat and on Twitter:
The symposium was amazing!! Thanks so much for giving me the chance to be a part of it. I learned a whole lot!
Nelissa Ling, New Zealand (flash talk presenter)
Thank you for the BEST symposium in my recent memory. Integrated science is wonderful
Barbara E. Corkey, Obesity Research Center, Boston University School of Medicine
Great variety of talks. Metabolism connects…..
Jonathan Wells, UCL (speaker)
I love the cross disciplinary nature of the meeting as it really got me thinking about a range of new things. The world needs more of this as we try to develop the universal theory of everything. Keep up the good work
Pete Shepherd (Speaker)
The aim was to break down disciplinary silos and to bring together people from diverse fields. In my opinion we achieved this goal
Alex Mörseburg (programme committee member)
I would like to thank you for a very interesting day which opened up new perspectives for me. It would be great to develop a project if we can find that biomarker. The discussion has inspired our geneticists to insert an appendix in our publication submission on measuring homozygosity in an island society, where the genetic predisposition towards obesity is very much supplementary …. even if it is just to acknowledge the symposium
Simon Stoddart (flash talk presenter)
..and over on Twitter
If you have any questions or require further information, please contact Angela Lumsdon, Metabolic Network Co-ordinator at aml95 at medschl.cam.ac.uk.