Patterns of human height & lifestyle

By Razib Khan | December 26, 2010 3:02 pm

Steve Hsu, The mystery of height:

I was looking at The Formosan Encounter: Notes on Formosa’s Aboriginal Society, A Selection of Documents from Dutch Archival Sources. The Dutch came to Taiwan (then called Formosa) in the early 17th century and these translated documents record their impressions of the Austronesian natives. (Both the Dutch and Chinese settlers traded with the natives during this period.)

One report states that the aboriginal men were taller by a head and neck, on average, than the Dutch. (The average Dutchman came only to the shoulder of the average native?) Another report describes the aborigines as tall and sturdily built, like semi-giants. This paper on historical Dutch height suggests that 17th century Dutchmen were about 170 cm or so on average. Holland was the richest country in Europe at the time, but nutritional conditions for average people were still not good by modern standards. So how tall were the aborigines? Presumably well above 180cm since “a head and neck” would be at least 20cm! (Some Native Americans were also very tall when the Europeans first encountered them.)

But, strangely, the descendants of these aborigines are not known for being particularly tall. This paper reports that modern day aboriginal children in Taiwan are shorter than their Han counterparts. On the other hand, the Dutch are now the tallest people in the world, with average male height exceeding 6 feet (183 cm). This kind of reversal makes one wonder whether, indeed, most groups of humans have similar potential for height under ideal conditions, as claimed here. (Note the epigenetic effects — several generations of good nutrition might be required for a group to reach its full height.)

And now from the The Economist:

About 12,000 years ago people embarked on an experiment called agriculture and some say that they, and their planet, have never recovered. Farming brought a population explosion, protein and vitamin deficiency, new diseases and deforestation. Human height actually shrank by nearly six inches after the first adoption of crops in the Near East….

Here is one model which I am in some sympathy with:

Constant warfare was necessary to keep population density down to one person per square mile. Farmers can live at 100 times that density. Hunter-gatherers may have been so lithe and healthy because the weak were dead. The invention of agriculture and the advent of settled society merely swapped high mortality for high morbidity, allowing people some relief from chronic warfare so they could at least grind out an existence, rather than being ground out of existence altogether.

The indigenous people of the Andaman Islanders in the Bay of Bengal are often classed as “Negritos.” This is in part a reference to their small size. But here is a description of the only population which has refused outside contact, the Sentinelese:

From the boat one could not made out their facial features but they appeared to be of a fairly good height. As our landing parties approached the beach the Sentinelese disappeared into the forest….

Here’s a video of a later contact with the Sentinelese. They seem to be a trim and normally proportioned people, though I can’t judge their heights too well.

In developed nations height is about ~80-90% heritable. That means that most of the population variance in height can be attributed to variance in genes. The distribution of heights of children are well predicted by the heights of parents. But what about between population differences? A great deal of this is obviously due to different environmental inputs. And yet some differences do seem to remain on the margin. Then there is the strange fact that American whites are now shorter than population-controlled Europeans, an inversion of the 19th century pattern.

A combination of epigenetics, genetic variation, and the balance of nutritional inputs, explain much of the world wide variation. Ten years ago I probably would have weighted #2 more than I do now. I suspect that the balance of nutrients, and not just the amount of calories, matters more than we might have thought. This may explain much, though not all, of the decrease in height with the shift from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming. Farming can extract an order of magnitude more calories per unit of land, but at the cost of nutritional diversity. Also, in regards to short hunter-gatherer populations such as the Bushmen, Pygmies, and many of the Negritos, their social and cultural marginalization has a lot of complex downstream effects (though please note black Americans have about the same mean height as white Americans, so we need to be careful here). Australian Aborigines are not particularly short, suggesting that long term co-existence with agriculturalists may have had an impact on other hunter-gatherer groups, as they were pushed into marginal lands, and exposed to the density dependent diseases of farmers. It is the last element which I believe explains some of the size difference of the Sentinelese from other Andaman Islanders. It may be that the common microbial flora of Eurasians has a deleterious impact on isolated populations, and results in low grade morbidity which shifts the development of these groups. When a group of Andamanese were separated from Indians in the 1960s they recovered much of their health, and the population began to grow again.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Genetics

Comments (12)

  1. bioIgnoramus

    Yup, I’d go to the Netherlands if I wanted to feel short, the US if I wanted to feel slim.

  2. Still plenty of us skinny folk in the US.

    The Japanese are certainly growing like weeds now. My high school students were not much shorter than Americans. Plenty were pushing six feet (183cm). Guys my age, now 40+, average about a head shorter than me.

  3. The differences in height between modern Americans and those of the pioneer era are stark, as illustrated by clothing and coffins from the earlier era. African-American women are currently trending shorter than their immediate predecessors.

  4. dave chamberlin

    We have a horrible human experiment going on right now in Korea. The North Koreans average three inches shorter than South Koreans simply because of sixty years of malnourishment in the North and a vastly improved diet in the South.

  5. bioIgnoramus

    When we first went to live in Austalia my wife remarked that the men were no taller than we were used to in Britain, but that the women were. Just think, she said, a country so rich that even the girls have been well fed for generations.

    But why, I wonder, would good feeding of prospective mothers add more to the height of daughters than of sons?

  6. Ghoghogol

    I think 17th c. Formosa had more plains aboriginals compared today’s proportion of mountain aboriginals. There was rather systematic Chinese colonization during the 18th and 19th c. in the lowland fertile regions (aboriginals were mostly assimilated into the Han Chinese population and some were killed). The mountainous central region of the island remained largely uncolonized that is where today’s aboriginals mostly originate.

  7. diana

    Regarding this Dutch height thing, where are the statistics from?

    According to Wikipedia (OK, Wikipedia), Dutch heights are self-reported.

    People quite exaggerate their height, unless they are very tall in which case they try to shave off a bit. A doctor told me this.

    Even so according to the table they are not much taller than the (measured) Norwegians.

    I say that the Dutch are tall, but no taller than the Norwegians. They are all pretty tall in Northern Europe.

    If I see an objective source that the Dutch are measurably taller than the Norwegians, I’ll drop my skeptics hat.

    Anecdotally I can vouch that some kinds of East Africans (who work in local shops as cashiers and stock-guys) are notably tall and lean.

  8. diana

    “Yup, I’d go to the Netherlands if I wanted to feel short, the US if I wanted to feel slim.”

    I don’t think Americans are any fatter than Brits, speaking anecdotally. I saw plenty of fatties there. They made fun of me for being a “sporty American.” Yanks just can’t win. When we are fat we are fat Yanks. when we are thin we are obsessive.

  9. i wonder how bit the intra-national variance in fatitude is in other countries. coastal urban locales like new york or SFO really aren’t fatter than europe. OTOH, if you go to nashville or something….

  10. RT

    “Then there is the strange fact that American whites are now shorter than population-controlled Europeans, an inversion of the 19th century pattern.”

    Be wary of that New Yorker article and anything else citing John Komlos. He keeps harping on Americans being short to advocate for more wealth redistribution and national health care. Regardless of how one feels about these policies, the main problem with his argument that American whites aren’t that short compared to Europeans and whether one’s ancestors spoke a Germano-Balto-Slavic language as opposed to an Italo-Celtic or Hellenic language in ancient times seems to be a better predictor of average height than modern differences in average income and income inequality. In fact, many prosperous Western European Countries are rather short and poor eastern European counties are rather tall. Here is some height data from various statistical agencies and conscription studies. All samples are measured heights unless noted as self-reported (s-r) (where people usually assert that they are 1 or 2 cm taller than they actually are, as one can see by the Australian data from the same study and the German data from conscripts (measured) and the Mikrozensus (self reported)):

    Dinaric Alps – 185.6, Netherlands – 184.0, Sweden – 181.5, Germany 181.0 (sr), Denmark 180.6, Czech Rep. 180.0, Germany 180.0, Finland 180.0 (sr), Australia – 179.9 (sr), Norway 179.7, Austria – 179.6 (sr), Belgium – 179.5(sr), Estonia 179.1, US (white) – 178.9, Australia – 178.4, Scotland – 178.2, Switzerland – 178.1, Greece 178.1, England – 177.6, Ireland 177.4 (sr), France 177.0, Italy (Rome & North) 177.0, Turkey (Ankara) – 176.1, Spain 176.1 (sr), Italy (S. of Rome) 174.2, Portugal 172.8

    White Americans are neither particularly tall nor short. All groups are much taller than they were in the 19th C. Americans have just lost their advantage as nutrition in Europe has caught up.

    “The Japanese are certainly growing like weeds now. My high school students were not much shorter than Americans.”

    This isn’t true according to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The average male Japanese young adult has been stagnant at about 172cm tall since the mid 1980s.

  11. RT, may be bias on my part, I’ll admit. But there sure were a lot of tall kids around, and their parents were little squatty folks.

  12. AG

    Gregory Cochran ‘s The 10,000 Year Explosion has well explained the outcome of agricultural civilization. The height reduced due to poor nutrient.

    Only the upper class people or noble men had privilage to enjoy taste of their stone-aged ancestors. It was possible that ruling class might be from nearby steppe. In Han and Tang dynasties, it was also the ruling class who had chance to intermarry with nearby nobles from steppe for political reason. Nomads on steppe were the closest thing to original hunters. For many reasons, the ruling class might have characters of hunter tribe culturally and genetically. The subject farmers they ruled over were more like their hunting prey or live stocks on steppe. Farmers were domesticated by ruling nomad like domesticated animals.

    Original Mongol tribe was hunters befor their expansion into tatars land near China.

    Btw, venison is much healthier meat.


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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


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