Skip to comments.MEN FROM EARLY MIDDLE AGES WERE NEARLY AS TALL AS MODERN PEOPLE
Posted on 09/01/2004 12:02:19 PM PDT by ckilmer
MEN FROM EARLY MIDDLE AGES WERE NEARLY AS TALL AS MODERN PEOPLE COLUMBUS, Ohio Northern European men living during the early Middle Ages were nearly as tall as their modern-day American descendants, a finding that defies conventional wisdom about progress in living standards during the last millennium.
Richard Steckel "Men living during the early Middle Ages (the ninth to 11th centuries) were several centimeters taller than men who lived hundreds of years later, on the eve of the Industrial Revolution," said Richard Steckel, a professor of economics at Ohio State University and the author of a new study that looks at changes in average heights during the last millennium.
"Height is an indicator of overall health and economic well-being, and learning that people were so well-off 1,000 to 1,200 years ago was surprising," he said.
Steckel analyzed height data from thousands of skeletons excavated from burial sites in northern Europe and dating from the ninth to the 19th centuries. Average height declined slightly during the 12th through 16th centuries, and hit an all-time low during the 17th and 18th centuries.
"Height is an indicator of overall health and economic well-being, and learning that people were so well-off 1,000 to 1,200 years ago was surprising," he said. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Northern European men had lost an average 2.5 inches of height by the 1700s, a loss that was not fully recovered until the first half of the 20th century.
Steckel believes a variety of factors contributed to the drop and subsequent regain in average height during the last millennium. These factors include climate change; the growth of cities and the resulting spread of communicable diseases; changes in political structures; and changes in agricultural production.
"Average height is a good way to measure the availability and consumption of basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, medical care and exposure to disease," Steckel said. "Height is also sensitive to the degree of inequality between populations."
The study appears in a recent issue of the journal Social Science History.
Steckel analyzed skeletal data from 30 previous studies. The bones had been excavated from burial sites in northern European countries, including Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Great Britain and Denmark. In most cases, the length of the femur, or thighbone, was used to estimate skeletal height. The longest bone in the body, the femur comprises about a quarter of a person's height.
According to Steckel's analysis, heights decreased from an average of 68.27 inches (173.4 centimeters) in the early Middle Ages to an average low of roughly 65.75 inches (167 cm) during the 17th and 18th centuries.
"This decline of two-and-a-half inches substantially exceeds any height fluctuations seen during the various industrial revolutions of the 19th century," Steckel said.
Reasons for such tall heights during the early Middle Ages may have to do with climate. Steckel points out that agriculture from 900 to 1300 benefited from a warm period temperatures were as much as 2 to 3 degrees warmer than subsequent centuries. Theoretically, smaller populations had more land to choose from when producing crops and raising livestock.
"The temperature difference was enough to extend the growing season by three to four weeks in many settled regions of northern Europe," Steckel said. "It also allowed for cultivation of previously unavailable land at higher elevations."
Also, populations were relatively isolated during the Middle Ages large cities were absent from northern Europe until the late Middle Ages. This isolation in the era before effective public health measures probably helped to protect people from communicable diseases, Steckel said.
"It is notable that bubonic plague made its dramatic appearance in the late Middle Ages, when trade really took off," he said.
Steckel cites several possible reasons why height declined toward the end of the Middle Ages:
The climate changed rather dramatically in the 1300s, when the Little Ice Age triggered a cooling trend that wreaked havoc on northern Europe for the following 400 to 500 years. Colder temperatures meant lower food production as well as greater use of resources for heating. But many temperature fluctuations, ranging in length from about 15 to 40 years, kept people from fully adapting to a colder climate, Steckel said.
"These brief periods of warming disguised the long-term trend of cooler temperatures, so people were less likely to move to warmer regions and were more likely to stick with traditional farming methods that ultimately failed," he said. "Climate change was likely to have imposed serious economic and health costs on northern Europeans, which in turn may have caused a downward trend in average height."
Urbanization and the growth of trade gained considerable momentum in the 16th and 17th centuries. Both brought people together, which encouraged the spread of disease. And global exploration and trade led to the worldwide diffusion of many diseases into previously isolated areas.
"Height studies for the late 18th and early 19th centuries show that large cities were particularly hazardous for health," Steckel said. "Urban centers were reservoirs for the spread of communicable diseases."
Inequality in Europe grew considerably during the 16th century and stayed high until the 20th century the rich grew richer from soaring land rents while the poor paid higher prices for food, housing and land. "In poor countries, or among the poor in moderate-income nations, large numbers of people are biologically stressed or deprived, which can lead to stunted growth," Steckel said. "It's plausible that growing inequality could have increased stress in ways that reduced average heights in the centuries immediately following the Middle Ages."
Political changes and strife also brought people together as well as put demand on resources. "Wars decreased population density, which could be credited with improving health, but at a large cost of disrupting production and spreading disease," Steckel said. "Also, urbanization and inequality put increasing pressure on resources, which may have helped lead to a smaller stature."
Exactly why average height began to increase during the 18th and 19th centuries isn't completely clear, but Steckel surmises that climate change as well as improvements in agriculture helped.
"Increased height may have been due partly to the retreat of the Little Ice Age, which would have contributed to higher yields in agriculture. Also improvements in agricultural productivity that began in the 18th century made food more plentiful to more people.
This study is part of the Global History of Health Project, an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to analyze human health throughout the past 10,000 years.
Steckel wants to continue looking at, and interpreting, fluctuations in height across thousands of years
"I want to go much further back in time and look at more diverse populations to see if this general relationship holds over 10,000 years," he said.
Contact: Richard Steckel, (614) 2925008; firstname.lastname@example.org Written by Holly Wagner, (614) 292-8310; email@example.com
i'll read this later
Next they're going to say there's no such thing as Global Warming!
Does not sound right - every knight's armor I have ever seen is built for smaller men - and they would have been the ones to live a "good" life.
Eating protein in the adolescent years is important.
At 39 years old I consider myself to be "early middle aged". I was just as tall this morning as I am now.
They data could show that average height in 1300 was 5'5" and average height in 1700 was 5'3".
I'm a male in early middle age, but I'm taller than modern college researchers.
I find issue with the conclusions of the report in that it does not address a well-known dietetic issue related to Chinese height variance. In the northern climes of China where wheat is more prevalent the heights are statistically superior to those in the southern climes where rice is the prevalent staple.
The findings sound plausible, but I believe that the conclusions are unsupported.
I could understand an argument that states inferior/reduced agricultural production later in history led to a decline in height. However, what I see here is an evolutionary assumption that 'as production capabilities increased man's height must also increase' being challenged. Correlation does not make for causation. Therefore the conclusions are unsupported within the article as presented.
Also doesn't match the size of doorways in very old houses, or the size of bunks on old sailing ships.
Well, we certainly know who to blame for THIS!
I thought so too, but my son, who will be 16 in a few weeks, is following precisely the same growth schedule I did, and is now over 5'11", despite becoming a vegetarian over a year ago and refusing to eat high-protein foods like beans and peanut butter. His feet are already as big as mine (I'm 6' 2 1/4").
His mother is under 5' 2", so if he gets taller than me it won't be because of genetics.
If your nutrition is "good enough", you will follow your preprogrammed genetic schedule -- even a diet relatively low in protein is "good enough" today, when food is so abundant. The main thing is to avoid any period of deprivation while growing up.
Supplements won't really help. If you want to get taller than you are genetically programmed for, you will have to eat huge amounts and get fat too, or else exercise in an extremely rigorous way, and even those steps will only give you an inch or two.
Then don't read.
I could have saved the guy lots of effort...
The buildings in Germany from the 1000's (ie. Goslar) have doors around 5'x2.5'. Armor from that period is not much larger, for individuals around 5'3".
The beds made for miners in Gold Rush California (1850's) are only about 5' length (ie. Columbia State Park or Bodie).
Karl the Great (Charlemagne) was considered average height at 5'6" in the 800's. He was nobility and Emperor.
Poor have been small until recently, rich have been taller.
More fish and flesh, more height, more starch - less.
The guy could have checked the cemetaries - sarcophaguses...plotted sizes from northern Europe to Italy...
I hope his study wasn't govenment funded.
Have a closer look at a uniform worn by the average WW II soldier. A size 40 coat was large.
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