Global variation in diurnal cortisol rhythms: evidence from Garisakang forager-horticulturalists of lowland Papua New Guinea

Samuel S. Urlacher, Melissa A. Liebert, Martina Konečná

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis represents an important and evolutionarily ancient biological pathway linking physical and psychological stressors with human health. Despite considerable research exploring the physiological stress response among developed populations, few studies have examined HPA activity in non-industrialized contexts, restricting understanding of variation in human stress reactivity across global socio-ecological diversity. The present study addresses this shortcoming by investigating diurnal cortisol rhythms among Garisakang forager-horticulturalists of remote, lowland Papua New Guinea. Using a large sample of repeated salivary cortisol measurements from 169 participants (age 4–70 years), multilevel growth curve models were constructed to assess Garisakang waking cortisol concentrations and diurnal cortisol slopes. As predicted, results demonstrate identifiable but substantially diminished diurnal cortisol rhythms relative to those of industrialized populations. Sample-wide, Garisakang cortisol concentrations are highest upon waking (mean = 4.86 nmol/L) and decrease throughout the day at a mean rate of only −0.18 nmol/L/h or −6.20%/h. Age and sex significantly predict evaluated cortisol parameters in ways not consistently reported among industrialized populations, suggesting that Garisakang diurnal cortisol rhythms are defined by distinct ontogenetic trajectories across the lifespan. These findings highlight cross-cultural diversity in HPA activity and have important implications for understanding basic mechanisms of the physiological stress response in contexts of chronic physical stressors such as limited nutrition, heavy burden of infectious disease, and high levels of physical activity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)101-109
Number of pages9
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 4 2018


  • HPA axis
  • Stress
  • diurnal cortisol slope
  • lifespan
  • non-industrialized society
  • waking cortisol

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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