Professor, Anthropology Department
Co-Director, Human Biology Laboratory
Senior Research Scientist, The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction
Director, Evolutionary Anthropology Laboratory
Interim Director (2014-2015), Human Biology
Faculty, Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior (CISAB)
Core Faculty, Common Themes in Reproductive Diversity (NIH Training Grant)
Affiliate, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies
- Ph.D., Anthropology, University of Michigan, 1986
- M.A., Biological Anthropology, University of Michigan, 1980
- B.S./B.A., Biology and Anthropology, Queens College, 1977
Geographical Areas of Specialization: Bolivia, Germany, Greenland, Mongolia
Topical Interests: life history theory, evolutionary mechanisms, reproductive functioning and adaptations, reproductive and sexual health, pregnancy loss, contraceptive technologies
An evolutionary biologist, Dr. Vitzthum’s work of the past 20 years has focused on the determinants of variation in human female reproductive functioning. During the mid-90s at the Bolivian Institute for High Altitude Biology, Vitzthum directed Project REPA, a longitudinal study of hormonal variation in highland Bolivian women. Vitzthum found unequivocally that lower hormone levels were normal for Bolivian women. Despite living at a high altitude and consuming an average of only 1800 calories a day, they were able to conceive with lower hormone levels than are considered normal for American women.
Vitzthum’s most recent work is focused on the causes of this hormonal variation. In 2006 she studied nomadic Mongolian herders, whose caloric intake is similar to Bolivians but whose consumption of animal fat is closer to that of Americans. She spent last year at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, measuring hormone levels in women born in the former East and West Germanys, where both diet and activity patterns differed before reunification.
“What we eat and what we do is at the heart of the intersection between biology and culture. Especially important is whether an adult experience of diet and exercise differs dramatically from one experienced in childhood. Who we are as adults is very much a reflection of who we were as children.”
Vitzthum sees her work as a bridge to the world of applied health policy such as to contraceptive technology, where less hormonal variation among woman and populations is assumed than her research indicates.
Article on recent NSF Award: "Research team to study impact of climate-related challenges on vulnerable Arctic community"
Read an interview with Dr. Vitzthum, "Scientist at Work. (IU newsroom, 8/09)
Honors & Awards
Darwin's legacy: an evolutionary view of women's reproductive and sexual functioning.
Harris AL, Vitzthum VJ.
J Sex Res. 2013;50(3-4):207-46
Fifty fertile years: anthropologists' studies of reproduction in high altitude natives.
Am J Hum Biol. 2013 Mar-Apr;25(2):179-89.
The ecology and evolutionary endocrinology of reproduction in the human female.
Am J Phys Anthropol. 2009;140 Suppl 49;95-136.
2009 Vitzthum, V. J., Thornburg, J., and Spielvogel, H. (2009). Seasonal Modulation of Reproductive Effort During Early Pregnancy in Humans. American Journal of Human Biology. DOI: 10.1002/ajhb.20936. Online version available at Wiley Interscience website.
2009 Vitzthum, V. J., Worthman, C. M., Beall, C.M., Thornburg, J., Vargas, E., Villena, M., Soria, R., Caceres, E. and Spielvogel, H. (2009). Seasonal and Circadian Variation in Salivary Testosterone in Rural Bolivian Men. American Journal of Human Biology. DOI: 10.1002/ajhb.20927. Online version available at Wiley Interscience website.
2008 Vitzthum, V.J. (2008). Evolutionary models of women's reproductive functioning. Annual Review of Anthropology. 37: 53-73. Online version available at Wiley Interscience website.