Height is a good measure of nutritional status. "Nutritional status, or synonymously 'net nutrition,' refers to the summing up of nutrient input and demand on those nutrients. While work intensity is the most obvious demand, it is just one of many. Energy is required to resist infection. Pregnancy adds caloric and nutrient demands, as does breast-feeding. Calories expended in any of these fashions are available neither for basal metabolism, nor for growth. The difference between nutrition and nutritional status/net nutrition is important for anthropometrics, because it is the latter, not the former, for which auxological measurements are a proxy" (Timothy Cuff, "Historical Anthropometrics"). Not surprisingly, height is clearly correlated with class power: the ruling class stand taller than the classes they rule; and the more class power workers and their allies gain, making their nation more egalitarian, the taller their nation's average height will be (since the masses always vastly outnumber the ruling class).
America's young adults, who share much the same diet [as Canadian young adults'], have suddenly plateaued. And while Canadians continue to inch upward, overtaking our richer neighbours, both countries lag behing the now towering Dutch. What is behind such differences? . . .Liberal and conservative pundits are fond of fretting about America's metaphorical "stature" in the world. Can America "stand tall"? Instead, they had better take the measure of American bodies and think about why Americans, once taller than Canadians and Europeans, have fallen relatively short.
An economic historian at Ohio State University, [Richard] Steckel has spent years scouring the boneyards and archives of the western hemisphere searching for clues about the height and health of past populations. . . .
. . . Northern Europeans in the 11th century were substantially taller -- almost three inches taller on average -- than their descendants on the eve of the industrial revolution around 1750. That might seem bizarre to anyone accustomed to thinking about human height as something that has increased steadily with the so-called march of civilization. But height varies with how healthy and how well off a given society is as a whole, says John Komlos, a prominent height historian at the University of Munich. "We've yet to recognize," says Komlos, "how sensitive the human body is to socio-economic and environmental circumstances."
In the late 1700s, for example, American-born colonialists made good use of their sparsely populated, protein-rich environment to become taller than their European contemporaries: average height was five foot eight for American men, judging from military and prison records. That was nearly two inches taller than the average British soldier. Just decades later, however, a strange stunting started to occur that researchers don't fully understand. American incomes rose from the early to mid-1800s, but that didn't equate to better living conditions. As Americans became richer -- as a group anyway -- they also shrank.
By the early 1900s, Americans were again among the world's tallest people. But now measurers are starting to detect another mysterious levelling off. At an average of five foot ten, American-born men from the 1970s are not much taller than their great-grandfathers. So much for the modern diet.
Canada, however, is still shooting upward. At just over five foot eleven, the average Canadian-born male from the 1970s stands nearly an inch taller than his American counterpart. And while it's nice to be taller than our well-fed neighbours, we still trail the Netherlands, whose citizens are now considered the tallest in the world. Starting in the 1840s, the Dutch began growing from generation to generation, to the point where just over six feet is average for men in their 20s and 30s.
For women the gap is even greater. At an average of five foot eight, Dutch women stand nearly four inches taller than their American-born counterparts. America might possess the mightiest economy and a supersized larder, but it has become clear such wealth doesn't necessarily translate into healthier or taller populations. In the space of about 140 years, the average Americans have gone from being three inches taller than the Dutch to three inches shorter.
According to Steckel, it's the relative equality within Dutch and other European societies that are helping them grow. "If you take a dollar from the richest and give it to the poor," Steckel says, "heights will increase." Nations with universal health coverage, protein-rich diets and relatively low income inequality -- like the Netherlands and Canada -- continue to get taller. That may not have always been the case. University of Guelph economist Kris Inwood believes Canadians went through the same pattern as Americans in the 19th century, getting shorter as incomes rose. But Canada began to reverse the so-called urban penalty around 1910. As big cities were cleaned up and milk programs took root in schools, Canadians grew.
That urban penalty made for some noticeable regional differences in the 1800s. "Ontario was taller than the Maritimes, and both were taller than Quebec," says Inwood. "Quebec wasn't the poorest, but it had the most inequality." It also had some of the oldest -- and dirtiest -- cities in Canada. According to Peter Ward at the University of British Columbia, Montreal in the 19th century was "one of the unhealthiest cities in the western world."
A low point in human stature, notes Komlos, was during a very cold period in the 17th century. It was also a century of political crisis, marked by the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants, which ravaged much of Western Europe. "I think a lot of that political upheaval had to do with the bad climate," speculates Komlos. "It meant agricultural productivity was down, and it was more difficult for people to feed themselves." Frenchmen, for example, averaged five foot three during that period, while women were about three inches shorter. When that data is compared with Steckel's findings from late-Medieval Europe, a remarkable trend emerges. Komlos's growth-stunted French were much shorter than Europeans who lived before the so-called little ice age of the 17th century and before cities -- efficient incubators of disease -- began to appear. Northern Europeans, in fact, shrank from a peak average height of just over five foot eight in the 11th century to five foot five and change in the 17th. It took generations before they would grow again.
One intriguing new finding is that the elites of Europe, Asia and Africa now actually all stand about the same height, roughly five foot ten to six foot, according to Steckel. What's different are the paths through history those groups took to achieve that stature. (Christopher Watt, "A Short History of Height," Maclean's, 31 Mar. 2005)
A history of height can more than puncture the illusion that America is the greatest nation on earth. It also gives lie to the bourgeois notion of history as linear progress. Jared Diamond says:
One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’ 9" for men, 5’ 5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’ 3" for men, 5’ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.Why did human bodies and lives both grow shorter with the adoption of agriculture? With agriculture came classes, contagious diseases, and higher birth rates, the pox on humanity that has yet to be eradicated.
Another example of paleopathology at work is the study of Indian skeletons from burial mounds in the Illinois and Ohio river valleys. At Dickson Mounds, located near the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers, archaeologists have excavated some 800 skeletons that paint a picture of the health changes that occurred when a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming around A. D. 1150. Studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of Massachusetts show these early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced bya bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a theefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. "Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was bout twenty-six years," says Armelagos, "but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years. So these episodes of nutritional stress and infectious disease were seriously affecting their ability to survive." ("The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race," Discover Magazine, May 1987)
According to Christopher Ruff, "Average body mass in living humans is smaller than it was during most of the Pleistocene. . . . [L]iving higher-latitude populations are about as large as terminal Pleistocene samples, whereas living lower-latitude populations are smaller on average than they were 10,000 years ago" ("Variation in Human Body Size and Shape." Annual Review of Anthropology 31.1, 2002, p. 211, 216). No wonder that ancients at the dawn of civilization thought of those who came before them as giants and ambivalently commemorated in their myth the overthrow of giants by the gods of civilization, for giants stood tall and lived free. Isn't it ironic that both the agricultural and industrial revolutions, while creating and enriching ruling classes, stunted human growth, from whose combined impacts the majority of living human beings have yet to fully recover?