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Prof Gillian Bentley


BA (Hons), MA, PhD

AffiliationRoom numberTelephone
Professor in the Department of Anthropology +44 (0) 191 33 41114
Professor in Durham CELLS (Centre for Ethics and Law in the Life Sciences)  
Fellow of the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing 40690


The major focus of my work lies in examining the effects on adult reproductive function of childhood development in different early life environments, as well as the implications for different developmental pathways on adult health. Together with many collaborators, we have run several studies with migrant Bangladeshis who either grew up in Sylhet, northeast Bangladesh (where immunological stressors are relatively high), or in the UK (with better health conditions). We consistently found that those individuals who spent their early childhoods in Bangladesh have lower levels of reproductive steroids (progesterone, testosterone) as adults, and shorter reproductive lifespans. Our data also suggest that there may be a developmental threshold around the age of 8 coinciding with the developmental milestone of adrenarche.

More recently, we have been exploring epigenetic mechanisms that may explain the plasticity of reproductive developmentand the rapidity (within one generation) with which individual reproductive phenotypes can be altered. We have so far discovered that changes in methylation of a gene called Srd5a1 might help to explain how rapid adjustments in ovarian function can be achieved during early life. (Srd5a1 encodes 5α-reductase-1, an enzyme that catalyzes the production of various reproductive and neuro-steroids). We plan further studies among Bangladeshi children to monitor methylation changes in Srd5a1 and other key genes that might be associated with the adrenarcheal transition and in adjusting future adult reproductive effort. 

My work fits broadly into the theme of Evolutionary Medicine, a field that has been growing since the early 1980s. My first degree, however, was in Archaeology of the Levant (University of London, Institute of Archaeology). I then went on to complete both a Masters and PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. For my PhD, I examined dental morphological traits in an Early Bronze Age population of skeletons excavated from Bab edh-Dhra’ in southern Jordan to test whether family groups were interred together in underground, chambered burials. I was always interested in the effects of the environment on population dynamics and particularly on fertility and ended up writing a paper (in 1985) that suggested the low fertility of !Kung San women in Botswana was explained by their heavy workloads suppressing ovarian function. I was even then shifting my focus away from archaeology and more towards biological anthropology.

I retrained through two postdoctoral fellowships in the anthropology departments at Harvard and Penn State Universities. At Harvard, I worked under the mentorship of Peter Ellison, learned radioimmunoassay techniques for the analyses of salivary steroid levels in his laboratory, and spent nine months working with the Ituri Project in Central Africa (in what was then Zaire), studying the effects of seasonal nutritional stress on reproductive function among the Lese, a group of slash and burn horticulturalists who live symbiotically with Efe pygmies. At Penn State University, I was funded by an NIH postdoctoral fellowship and worked with Jim Wood learning more about reproductive ageing and demography.

My first tenure-track job was at Northwestern University in the USA, but then I obtained a Royal Society University Fellowship and returned to the UK, first to Cambridge University and then to UCL. I was then offered a Professorship at Durham University where I have remained since 2006.

Research interests

  • Reproductive ecology
  • Evolutionary medicine
  • Early life development and later life health

Research Projects

  • A Life Course Approach to Obesity
  • Developmental Effects on Reproductive Function in Migrant Bangladeshi Women

Media Contacts

Available for media contact about:

  • Anthropology: human reproduction
  • Evolution: human reproduction
  • Infant and child health: human reproduction
  • International development: human reproduction
  • Health & Welfare: human reproduction
  • Human biology and development: human reproduction
  • Medical and health research topics: human reproduction
  • Nutrition: human reproduction
  • Obesity: human reproduction
  • Public policy, health and well-being: human reproduction
  • Anthropology: obesity
  • Evolution: obesity
  • Infant and child health: obesity
  • Health & Welfare: obesity
  • Health & welfare services: obesity
  • Human biology and development: obesity
  • Medical and health research topics: obesity
  • Nutrition: obesity
  • Obesity: obesity
  • Public policy, health and well-being: obesity
  • Anthropology: evolutionary medicine
  • Evolution: evolutionary medicine
  • Health & Welfare: evolutionary medicine
  • Human biology and development: evolutionary medicine
  • Medical and health research topics: evolutionary medicine
  • Public policy, health and well-being: evolutionary medicine


Chapter in book

  • Bentley, G. (2016). Applying evolutionary thinking in medicine: an introduction. In Evolutionary Thinking in Medicine. From Research to Policy and Practice. Alvergne, A., Jenkinson, C. & Faurie, C. Cham: Springer. 1-16.
  • Bentley, G.R. & Aunger, R. (2008). Practical aspects of Evolutionary Medicine. In Medicine and Evolution: Current Applications, Future Prospects. Elton, S. & O'Higgins, P. CRC Press. 215-237.
  • Núñez-de la Mora, A. & Bentley, G.R. (2008). Changes in risk factors for breast cancer in migrant women: An inter-generational comparison among Bangladeshis in the UK. In Health, Risk and Adversity. Panter-Brick, C. & Fuentes, A. New York.: Berghahn Press. 129-149
  • Núñez-de la Mora, A. & Bentley, G.R. (2008). Early life effects on reproductive function. In Evolutionary Medicine and Health: New Perspectives. Trevathan, W., Smith, E.O. & McKenna, J.J. New York: Oxford University Press. 149-168.
  • Bentley, G.R. & Perry, V.J. (2008). Dental analyses of the Bab edh-Dhra’ human remains. In The EB I Tombs and Burials of Bâb edh Dhrâ, Jordan. Ortner, D.J. & Frohlich, B. Altamira Press.
  • Scott,I., Bentley, G.R., Tovee, M.J., Ahamed, F.U., Magid, K. & Sharmeen, T. (2007). An evolutionary perspective on male preferences for female body shape. In Body Beautiful: Evolutionary and Socio-cultural Perspectives. Swami, V. & Furnham, A. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan.

Edited book

  • Bentley, G.R. & Mace, R. (2009). Substitute Parents: Biological and Social Perspectives on Alloparenting across Human Societies. Berghahn Press.
  • Bentley, G.R. & Mascie-Taylor, C.G.N. (2000). Infertility in the Modern World: Present and Future Prospects. Cambridge University Press.

Journal Article

Supervision students