Civilization makes you short: the Andaman Islanders

By Razib Khan | October 15, 2009 4:36 am

Andamanese_comparative_dist.pngA few days ago I pointed to a paper, Stature, Mortality, and Life History among Indigenous Populations of the Andaman Islands, 1871-1986. It looks at the specific case of the Andaman Islanders to explore the general phenomenon of “pygmy” populations, especially among “Negritos.” The Andaman Islanders are an interesting test case, as the authors note, because the disparate groups have taken different stances toward interaction with the outside world. The Great Andaman Islanders have mixed for over a century with the British and Indian settlers. The Onge began to interact with the outside world in the 20th century. While the Jarawa only in the past few decades. Finally, the tribe on Sentinel Island has remained totally isolated to this day. (the recent paper on Indian genetics shows this, the Great Andaman Islanders are heavily admixed with mainland Indian populations, while the Jarawa and Onge are not)
The authors of the paper collected a series of anthropometric data and relate it to measured mortality rates. It is striking to note how the populations of the Andaman Islands were struck with a host of ills which make the Noble Savage look a lot more appealing; syphilis, plagues of measles and tuberculosis. 10,000 years of dense settled Eurasian civilization and its ailments were unleashed upon this isolated population in the course of under 2 centuries. But the impact of these ailments was directly proportional to contact. As I noted above the Andaman Islanders of Sentinel remain isolated, and it is striking that physical reports of these peoples indicate their relatively greater size vis-a-vis the tribes who are in contact with the outside world, with males likely taller than the median Indian norm.
Why the differences in height? The authors suggest there may be many causes, including the one I assumed, a trade-off between maximum growth and battling exotic infections. But another factor they bring up are possible plasticities of phenotype and behavior contingent upon stress. In short, in an environment of high mortality individuals will be prone to mate and breed as early as possible, and this will result in early maturation and cessation of growth. This seems of the same flavor of argument as the Trivers-Willard hypothesis, different social contexts engendering varied bio-behavioral responses. But their argument is not purely verbal. Below is a figure which shows the correlation which pops out of their results:

I am not particularly surprised by these data. One thing that needs to be explored is whether small-bodied populations which live on the margins of settled groups have always been so small, or whether their small size is simply a function of the fact that they’ve been driven to a lifestyle which demands fast reproduction and minimal investment in large stature. Human populations shifted toward a lower median after the last Ice Age and the spread of agriculture. As I noted in an earlier post modern hunter-gatherers are not necessarily representative of ancient hunter-gatherers. The fishing and gathering peoples of the Pacific Northwest created complex societies due to the surplus of resources in their local ecology. This was to a great extent an accident of history, over time North American societies would have become more diversified in their agricultural systems and squeezed the local resources to the point where individual surplus would disappear. The United States appeared on the scene and cut-short this natural evolution. But they do show that hunter-gatherer societies not driven into resource poor regions can be quite wealthy. The phenomenon of small-bodies Negritos might then be a function of European ethnographers appearing on the scene only after agriculturalists have marginalized these older populations and a stable modus vivendi enforced a lifestyle that resulted in smaller size.
Do I believe the authors’ particular argument, that small size is simply a byproduct of a hasty reproductive clock? Not really. I think the more banal explanation is that disease saps biological resources and size is a casualty. But this an area where more research needs to be done, I don’t dismiss out of hand a life history story. The decrease in age of menarche in the developed world over the past few decades shows that biological processes are sensitive to environmental changes.
Citation: Reexamining Human Origins in Light of Ardipithecus ramidus,
C. Owen Lovejoy (2 October 2009) Science 326 (5949), 74. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1175834]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Genetics
  • MichaelE

    You find the most interesting things to blog about.
    Humans love to study ourselves more than any other species. You find the wonderful ideas that help us, well, me at least, see the consequences of being someone who has inhereted from his family tree – his evolutionary family tree.
    This post made me think of Chinese ethnicities and the fact that, generally speaking, the farther south one travels, the shorter the people become. Yes, I know climate is a big factor – large size helps heat retention and smaller size helps shed heat – but don’t people who live in tropical climates have to contend with more disease load as well? (All else being equal, as ecologists, I mean, economists like to say.)
    I also wonder about what you mentioned regarding breeding sooner – My impression is that people in tropical climates enjoy each other more and sooner than those in the frozen northlands. Having to peel off all those layers of bearskins cools the flames of ardor and whatnot, eh?
    Or maybe, wrt to size and latitude at which one dwells, climate and effort to get food are the biggest influences on body mass and stature and I’m just overthinking the whole thing.

  • Sigmund

    Did the height in the ‘mixed’ islands shift from tall to short after contact with outsiders occurred?
    If not then the possibility is that this is not adaptation but rather contingency involved in explaining the differing heights of the various islands.

  • razib

    Did the height in the ‘mixed’ islands shift from tall to short after contact with outsiders occurred?
    yes, after contact. it looks like after contact
    1) mortality goes up
    2) height drops
    the data is a bit noisy, but they found some significant p-values in there.

  • Tom Bri

    Another possibility is that diet is a relevant factor. Agricultural diets are usually much lower in all nutrients except carbohydrates. Vitamin, mineral and protein deficiencies can explain a lot of height difference.

  • Eric Johnson

    Couple refs from my files on the energetic cost of immunity. I’ve only read one of em.

  • Tony

    This is really interesting, and I’ve seen similar studies in relation to Native Americans.
    Is there anything civilization can’t do to those that choose the lifestyle?

  • Doctor Science

    I agree with Tom Bri. Disease is certainly important, but nutrition is clearly a *huge* factor, as one can see by looking at secular height changes since WWII.
    The decrease in age of menarche in the developed world over the past few decades shows that biological processes are sensitive to environmental changes.
    And what one observes is that, over such non-evolutionary time scales, is that early menarche is positively correlated with increased height.
    I’ll also point out that disease and nutrition go together: not just that poor nutrition leads to increased disease (though it does), but that when the parents are frequently ill the children are likely to be underfed.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar