Historical anthropometrics

Historical anthropometrics is the study of patterns in human body size and their correlates over time. While social researchers, public health specialists and physical anthropologists have long utilized anthropometric measures as indicators of well-being, only within the past three decades have historians begun to use such data extensively. Adult stature is a cumulative indicator of net nutritional status over the growth years, and thus reflects command over food and access to healthful surroundings. Since expenditures for these items comprised such a high percentage of family income for historical communities, mean stature can be used to examine changes in a population’s economic circumstances over time and to compare the well-being of different groups with similar genetic height potential. Anthropometric measures are available for portions of many national populations as far back as the early 1700s. While these data often serve as complements to standard economic indicators, in some cases they provide the only means of assessing historical economic well-being, as “conventional” measures such as per capita GDP, wage and price indices, and income inequality measures have been notoriously spotty and problematic to develop. Anthropometric-based research findings to date have contributed to the scholarly debates over mortality trends, the nature of slavery, and the outcomes of industrialization and economic development. Height has been the primary indicator utilized to date. Other indicators include height-standardized weight indices, birth weight, and age at menarche. Potentially even more important, historical anthropometrics broadens the understanding of “well-being” beyond the one dimensional “ruler” of income, providing another lens through which the quality of historical life can be viewed.

This article:

  • provides a brief background of the field including a history of human body measurement and analysis and a description of the biological foundations for historical anthropometrics,
  • describes the current state of the field (along with methodological issues) and future directions, and
  • provides a selective bibliography.

Anthropometrics: Historical and Bio-Medical Background

The Evolution of Body Measurement and Analysis in Context

The measurement and description of the human form in the West date back to the artists of classical civilizations, but the rationale for systematic, large-scale body measurement and record keeping emerged out of the needs of early modern military organizations. By the mid-eighteenth century height commonly provided a means of classifying men into and of identifying them within military units and the procedures for measuring individuals entering military service were well established. The military’s need to identify recruits has provided most historical measurements of young men.

Scientific curiosity in the eighteenth century also spurred development of the first textbooks on human growth, although they were more concerned with growth patterns throughout life than with stature differences across groups or over time. In the nineteenth century class differences in height were easily observable in England. The moral outrage generated by the “tiny children” (Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twists”) along with the view that medicine had a preventive as well as a curative function, meant that anthropometry was directed primarily at the poor, especially children toiling in the factories of English and French industrial cities. Later, fear in Britain over the “degeneration” of its men and their potential as an effective fighting force provided motivation for large-scale anthropometric surveys, as did efforts evolving out of the child-welfare movement. The early-twentieth century saw the establishment of a series of longitudinal population surveys (which follow individuals as they age) in North America and in Europe. In some cases this work was directed toward the generation of growth standards, while other efforts evaluated social-class differences among children. Such studies can be seen as transitional steps between contemporary and historical anthropometrics. Since the 1950s, anthropometry has been utilized for a variety of purposes in both the developed and underdeveloped world. Population groups have been measured in order to refine growth standards, to monitor the nutritional status of individuals and populations during famines and political disturbances, and to evaluate the effectiveness of economic development programs.

Anthropometric studies today can be classified as one of three types. Auxologists perform basic research, collecting body measurements over the human life cycle to further detail standards of physical development for twenty-first century populations. The second focus, a continuation of nineteenth century work, documents the living standards of children often supporting regulatory legislation or government aid policies. The third direction is historical anthropometrics. Economists, historians, and anthropologists specializing in this field seek to assess, in physical terms, the well-being of previous societies and the factors which influenced it.

Human Growth and Development: The Biological Foundations of Historical Anthropometrics

While historical anthropometric research is a relatively recent development, an extensive body of medical literature relating nutrition and epidemiological conditions to physical growth provides a strong theoretical underpinning. Bio-medical literature, along with the World Health Organization, describes mean stature as one of the best measures of overall health conditions within a society.

Final attained height and height by age both result from a complex interaction of genetic endowment and environmental effects. At the level of the individual, genetics is a strong but not exclusive influence on the determination of final height and of growth patterns. Genetics is most important when net nutrition is optimal. However, when evaluating differences among groups of people in sub-optimal nutritional circumstances environmental influences predominate.

The same nutritional regime can result in different final stature for particular individuals, because of genetic variation in the ability to continue growing in the face of adverse nutritional circumstances, epidemiological environments, or work requirements. However, the genetic height potential of most Europeans, Africans, and North Americans of European or African ancestry is comparable; i.e., under equivalent environmental circumstances the groups have achieved nearly identical mean adult stature. For example, in many parts of rural Africa, mean adult heights today are similar to those of Africans of 150 years ago, while well-fed urban Africans attain final heights similar to current-day Europeans and North Americans of European descent. Differences in nutritional status do result in wide variation in adult height even within populations of the same genetic make-up. For example, individuals from higher socio-economic classes tend to be taller than their lower class counterparts whether in impoverished third-world countries or in the developed nations.

Height is the most commonly utilized, but not the only, anthropometric indicator of nutritional status. The growth profile is another. Environmental conditions, while affecting the timing of growth (the ages at which accelerations and decelerations in growth rates occur), do not affect the overall pattern (the sequence in which growth/maturation events occur). The body seems to be self-stabilizing, postponing growth until caloric levels will support it and maintaining genetically programmed body proportions more rigidly than size potential. While final adult height and length of the growth period are not absolutely linked, populations which stop growing earlier usually, although not universally, end up being taller. Age at menarche, birth weight, and weight-for-height are also useful. Age at menarche (i.e. the first occurrence of menstruation) is not a measure of physical size, but of sexual maturation. Menarche generally occurs earlier among well-nourished women. Average menarcheal age in the developed West is about 13 years, while in the middle of the nineteenth century it was between 15 and 16 years among European women. Areas which have not experienced nutritional improvement over the past century have not witnessed decreases in the age at menarche. Infant birth weight, an indicator of long-term maternal nutritional status, is influenced by the mother’s diet, work intensity, quality of health care, maternal size and the number of children she has delivered, as well as the mother’s health practices. The level of economic inequality and social class status are also correlated with birth weight variation, although these variables reflect some of the factors noted above. However, because the mother’s diet and health status are such strong influences on birth weight, it provides another useful means of monitoring women’s well-being. Height-for-weight indices, particularly the body mass index (BMI), have seen some use by anthropometric historians. Contemporary bio-medical research which links BMI levels and mortality risk hints at the promise which this measure might hold for historians. However, the limited availability of weight measurements before the mid-nineteenth century will limit the studies which can be produced.

Improvements in net nutritional status, both across wide segments of the population in developed countries and within urban areas of less-developed countries (LDCs), are generally accepted as the most salient influence on growth patterns and final stature. The widely experienced improvement in net nutrition which was apparent in most of the developed world across most of the twentieth century and more recently in the “modern” sector of some LDCs has lead to a secular trend, the unidirectional trend toward greater stature and faster maturation. Before the twentieth century, height cycling without a distinct direction was the dominant historical pattern. (Two other sources of stature increase have been hypothesized but have garnered little support among the medical community: the increased practice of infantile smallpox vaccination and heterosis (hybrid vigor), i.e. varietal cross-breeding within a species which produces offspring who are larger or stronger than either parent.)

The Definition and Determination of Nutritional Status

“Nutritional status” is a term critical to an understanding of anthropometrics. It encompasses more than simply diet, i.e. the intake of calories and nutrients, and is thus distinct from the more common term “nutrition.” While nutrition refers to the quantity and quality of food inputs to the human biological system, it makes no reference to the amounts needed for healthy functioning resulting from nutrient demand placed on the individual. 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.

caption Figure 1. Influences on stature in market-based societies.


Human biologists and medical scientists generally agree that within genetically similar populations net nutrition is the primary determinant of adult physical stature. Height, as Bielicki notes, is “socially induced variation.” Figure 1 indicates the numerous channels of influence on the final adult stature of any individual. Anthropometric indicators reflect the relative ease or difficulty of acquiring sufficient nutrients to provide for growth in excess of the immediate needs of the body. Nutritional status and physical stature clearly are composite measures of well-being linked to economic processes. However, the link is mediated through a variety of social circumstances, some volitional, others not. Hence, anthropometric historians must evaluate each situation within its own economic, cultural, and historical context.

In earlier societies, and in some less developed countries today, access to nutrients was determined primarily by control of arable land. As markets for food developed and urban living became predominant, for increasing percentages of the population, access to nutrients depended upon the ability to purchase food, i.e. on real income. Additionally, food allocation within the family is not determined by markets but by intra-household bargaining as well as by tastes and custom. For example, in some cultures households distribute food resources so as to ensure nutritional adequacy for those family members engaged in income or resource-generating activity in order to maximize earning power. The handful of studies which include historical anthropometric data for women reveal that stature trends by gender do not always move in concert. Rather, in periods of declining nutritional status, women often exhibited a reduction in stature levels before such changes appeared among males. This is somewhat paradoxical because biologists generally argue that women’s growth trajectories are more resistant to a diminution in nutritional status than are those of men. Though too little historical research has been done on this issue to speak with certainty, the pattern might imply that, in periods of nutritional stress, women bore the initial brunt of deprivation.

Other cultural practices, including the high status accorded to the use of certain foods, such as white flour, polished rice, tea or coffee may promote greater consumption of nutritionally less valuable foods among those able to afford them. This would tend to reduce the resultant stature differences by income. Access to nutrients also depends upon other individual choices. A small landholder might decide to market much of his farm’s high-value, high-protein meat and dairy products, reducing his family’s consumption of these nutritious food products in order to maximize money income. However, while material welfare would increase, biological welfare, knowingly or unknowingly, would decline.

Disease-exposure variation occurs as a result of some factors under the individual’s control and other factors which are determined at the societal level. Pathogen prevalence and potency and the level of community sanitation are critical factors which are not directly affected by individual decision making. However, housing and occupation are often individually chosen and do help to determine the extent of disease exposure. Once transportation improvements allow housing segregation based on socio-economic status to occur within large urban areas, residence location can become an important influence. However, prior to such, for example in mid-nineteenth century United States, urban childhood mortality levels were more influenced by the number of children in a family than by parental occupation or socio-economic status. The close proximity of the homes of the wealthy and the poor seems to have created a common level of exposure to infectious agents and equally poor sanitary conditions for children of all economic classes.

Work intensity, another factor determining nutritional status, is a function of the age at which youth enter the labor force, educational attainment, the physical exertion needed in a chosen occupation, and the level of technology. There are obvious feedback effects from current nutritional status to future nutritional status. A low level of nutritional status today might hinder full-time labor-force participation, and result in low incomes, poor housing, and substandard food consumption in subsequent periods as well, thereby reinforcing the cycle of nutritional inadequacy.

Historical Anthropometrics

Early Developments in the Field

Le Roy Ladurie’s studies of nineteenth-century French soldiers published in the late 1960s and early 1970s are recognized as the first works in the spirit of modern historical anthropometrics. He documented that stature among French recruits varied with their socio-economic characteristics. In the U.S., the research was carried forward in the late 1970s, much based on nineteenth-century records of U.S. slaves transported from the upper to the lower South. Studies of Caribbean slaves followed.

In the 1980s numerous anthropometric works were generated in connection with a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) directed study of American and European mortality trends from 1650 to the present, coordinated by Robert W. Fogel. Motivated in great part by the desire to evaluate Thomas McKeown’s hypothesis that improvements in nutrition were the critical component in mortality declines in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, the project has lead to the creation of numerous large anthropometric data bases. These have been the starting point for the analysis of trends in physical stature and net nutritional status on both sides of the Atlantic. While most historical anthropometric studies published in the U.S. during the early and mid-1980s were either outgrowths of the NBER project or were conducted by students of Robert Fogel, such as Richard Steckel and John Komlos, mortality trends were no longer the sole focus of historical anthropometrics. Anthropometric statistics were used to analyze the effect of industrialization on the populations experiencing it, as well as the characteristics of slavery in the United States. The data sources were primarily military records or documents relating to slaves. As the 1980s became the 1990s the geographic range of stature studies moved beyond Europe and North American to include Asia, Australia, and Africa. Other data sources were utilized. These included records from schools and utopian communities, certificates of freedom for manumitted slaves, voter registration cards, newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves and indentured servants, insurance applications, and a variety of prison inmate records. The number of anthropometric historians also expanded considerably.

Findings to Date

Major achievements to date in historical anthropometrics include 1) the determination of the main outlines of the trend in physical stature in Europe and North America between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, and 2) the emergence of several well-supported, although still debated, hypotheses pertaining to the relationship between height and the economic and social developments which accompanied modern economic growth in these centuries.

Historical research on human height has indicated how much healthier the New World environment was compared to that of Europe. Europeans who immigrated to North America, on average, obtained a net nutritional status far better than that which was possible for them to attain in their place of birth. Eighteenth century North Americans attained mean heights not achieved by Europeans until the twentieth century. The combination of lower population density, lower levels of income inequality, and greater food resources bestowed a great benefit upon those growing up in North America. This advantage is evident not only in adult heights but also in the earlier timing of the adolescent growth spurt, as well as the earlier attainment of final height.

Table 1. Mean Heights of Adult Males (in inches)

North America Europe
European Ancestry African Ancestry Hungary England Sweden
1775 - 1783 1861 - 1865 1943 - 1944 1811 - 1861 1943 - 1944 1813 - 1835 1816 - 1821 1843 - 1886
68.1 68.5 68.1 67.0 67.9 64.2 65.8 66.3
Note: Dates refer to dates of measurement.

Stature Cycles in Europe and America

The early finding that there was not a unidirectional upward trend in stature since the 1700s startled researchers, whose expectations were based on recent experience. Extrapolating backward, Floud, Wachter, and Gregory note that such surprise was misplaced, for if the twentieth century’s rate of height increase had been occurring for several centuries, medieval Europeans would have been dwarfs or midgets. Instead, in Europe cycles in height were evident. Though smaller in amplitude than in Europe, stature cycling was a feature of the American experience, as well. At the time of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II, the mean height of adult, native-born white males was a fraction over 68 inches (Table 1), but there was some variation in between these periods with a small decline in the years before the Civil War and perhaps another one from 1860 into the 1880s. Just before the turn of the twentieth century, mean stature began its relatively uninterrupted increase which continues to the present day. These findings are based primarily on military records drawn from the early national army, Civil War forces, West Point Cadets, and the Ohio National Guard, although other data sets show similar trends. The free black population seems to have experienced a downturn in physical stature very similar to that of whites in the pre-Civil War period. However, an exception to the antebellum diminution in nutritional status has been found among slave men.

Per Capita Income and Height

In addition to the cycling in height, anthropometric historians have documented that the intuitively anticipated positive correlation between mean height and per capita income holds at the national level in the twentieth century. Steckel has shown that, in cross-national comparison, the correlation between height and per capita income is as high as .84 to .90. However, since per capita income is highly correlated with a series of other variables that also affect height, the exact pathway through which income affects height is not fully clear. Among the factors which help to explain the variation are better diet, medicine, improvements in sanitary infrastructure, longer schooling, more sedentary life, and better housing. Intense work regimes and psycho-social stress, both of which affect growth negatively, might also be mitigated by greater per capita income. However, prior to the twentieth century the relationship between height and income was not monotonic. U.S. troops during the American Revolution were nearly as tall as U.S. soldiers sent to Europe and Japan in the 1940s, despite the fact that per capita income in the earlier period was substantially below that in the latter. Similarly, while per capita income in the U.S. in the late 1770s was below that of the British, the American troops had a height advantage of several inches over their British counterparts in the War of Independence.

Height and Income Inequality

The level of income inequality also has a powerful influence on mean heights. Steckel’s analysis of data for the twentieth century indicates that a 0.1 decrease in the Gini coefficient (indicating greater income equality) is associated with a gain in mean stature of about 3.7 cm (1.5 inches). In societies with great inequality, increases in per capita income have little effect on average stature if the gains accrue primarily to the wealthier segments of the society. Conversely, even without changes in average national per capita income, a reduction in inequality can have similar positive impact upon the stature and health of those at the lower rungs of the income ladder.

The high level of social inequality at the onset of modern economic growth in England is exemplified by the substantial disparity between the height of students of the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, an elite institution, and the Marine Society, a home for destitute boys in London. The difference in mean height at age fourteen exceeded three inches in favor of the gentry. In some years the gap was even greater. Komlos has documented similar findings elsewhere: regardless of location, boys from “prestigious military schools in England, France, and Germany were much taller than the population at large.” A similar pattern existed in the nineteenth-century U.S. However, the social gap in the U.S. was minuscule compared to that prevailing in the Old World. Stature also varied by occupational groups. In eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and North America, white collar and professional workers tended to be significantly taller than laborers and unskilled workers. However, farmers, being close to the source of nutrients and with fewer interactions with urban disease pools, tended to be the tallest, though their advantage disappeared by the twentieth century.

Regional and Rural-Urban Differences

Floud, Wachter, and Gregory have shown that, in early nineteenth century Britain, regional variation in stature dwarfed occupational differences. In 1815, Scotsmen, rural and urban, as well as the Irish, were about one-half an inch taller than the non-London urban English of the day. The rural English were slightly shorter, on average, than Englishmen born in small and medium sized towns. Londoners, however, had a mean height almost one-third of an inch less than other urban dwellers in England and more than three-quarters of an inch below the Irish or the Scots. A similar pattern held among convicts transported to New South Wales, Australia, except that the stature of the rural English was well above the average for all other English transported convicts. Floud, Wachter, and Gregory show a trend of convergence in height among these groups after 1800. The tendency for low population density rural areas in the nineteenth century to be home to the tallest individuals was apparent from the Habsburg Monarchy to Scotland, and in the remote northern regions of late nineteenth-century Sweden and Japan as well. In colonial America the rural-urban gradient did not exist. As cities grew, the rural born began to display a stature advantage over their urban brethren. This divergence persisted into the nineteenth century, and disappeared in the early twentieth century, when the urban-born gained a height advantage.

The Early-Industrial-Growth and Antebellum Puzzles

These patterns of stature variation have been put into a framework in both the European and the American contexts. Respectively they are known as the “early-industrial-growth puzzle” and the “Antebellum puzzle.” The commonality which has been identified is that in the early stages of industrialization and/or market integration, even with rising per capita incomes, the biological well-being of the populations undergoing such change does not, necessarily, improve immediately. Rather, for at least some portions of the population, biological well-being declined during this period of economic growth. Explanations for these paradoxes (or puzzles) are still being investigated and include: rising income inequality, the greater spread of disease through more thoroughly developed transportation and marketing systems and urban growth, the rising real price of food as population growth outstripped the agricultural system’s ability to provide, and the choice of farmers to market rather than consume high value/high protein crops.

Slave Heights

Research on slave heights has provided important insight into the living standards of these bound laborers. Large differences in stature have been documented between slaves on the North American mainland and those in the Caribbean. Adult mainland slaves, both women and men, were approximately two inches taller than those in the West Indies throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Steckel argues that the growth pattern and infant mortality rates of U.S. slave children indicate that they were moderately to severely malnourished, with mean heights for four to nine year olds below the second percentile of modern growth standards and with mortality rates twice those estimated for the entire United States population. Although below the fifth percentile throughout childhood, as adults these slaves were relatively tall by nineteenth-century standards, reaching about the twenty-fifth percentile of today’s height distribution, taller than most European populations of the time.

Height’s Correlation with Other Biological Indicators

The evaluation of McKeown’s hypothesis that much of the modern decline in mortality rates could be traced to improvements in nutrition (food intake) was one of the early rationales for the modern study of historical stature. Subsequent work has presented evidence for the parallel cycling of height and life expectancy in the United States during the nineteenth century. The relationship between the body-mass index, morbidity, and mortality risk within historical populations has also been documented. Along a similar line, Sandberg and Steckel’s data on Sweden have pointed out the parallel nature of stature trends and childhood mortality rates in the mid-nineteenth century.

Economic and social history are not the only two fields which have felt historical anthropometrics’ impact. North American slave height-by-age profiles developed by Steckel have been used by auxologists to exemplify the range of possible growth patterns among humans. Based on findings within the biological sciences, historical studies of stature have come full circle and are providing those same sciences with new data on human physical potential.

Methodological Issues

Accuracy problems in military-based data sets arise predominantly from carelessness of the measurer or from intentional misreporting of data rather than from lack of orthodox practice. Inadequate concern for accuracy can most often be noticed in heaping (height observations rounded to whole feet, six inch increments, or even numbered inches) and lack of fractional measurements. These “rounding” errors tend to be self-canceling. Of greater concern is intentional misreporting of either height or age, because minimum stature and age restrictions were often applied to military recruits. Young men, eager to discover the “romance” of military life or receive the bounty which sometimes accompanied enlistment, were not impervious to slight fabrication of their age. Recruiting officers, hoping to meet their assigned quotas quickly, might have been tempted to round measurements up to the minimum height requirement. Hence, it is not uncommon to find height and age heaping at either the age or stature minima.

For anthropometric historians, the issue of the representativeness of the population under study is similar to that for any social historian, but several specific caveats are appropriate when considering military samples. In time of peace military recruits tend to be less representative of the general population than are wartime armies. The military, with fewer demands for personnel, can be more selective, often instituting more stringent height minima, and occasionally maxima, for recruits. Such policies, as well as the self-interested behaviors noted above, require those who would use military data sets to evaluate and potentially adjust the data to account for the observations missing due to either left or right tail truncation. A series of techniques to account for such difficulties in the data have been developed, although there is still debate over the most appropriate technique. Other data sets also exhibit selectivity biases, although of different natures. Prison registers clearly do not provide a random sample of the population. The filter, however, is not based on size or desire for “exciting” work – rather on the propensity for criminal activity and on the enforcement mechanism of the judicial system. The representativeness of anthropometric samples can also be affected by previous selection by the Grim Reaper. Within Afro-Caribbean slave populations in Trinidad, death rates were significantly higher for shorter individuals (at all ages) than for the taller ones. The result is that a select group of more robust and taller individuals remained alive for eventual measurement.

One difficulty faced by anthropometric historians is the association of this research, more imagined than real, with previous misuses of body measurement. Nineteenth century American phrenologists used skull shape and size as a means of determining intelligence and as a way of justifying the enslavement of African-Americans. The Bertillon approach to evaluating prison inmates included the measurement and classification of lips, ears, feet, nose, and limbs in an effort to discern a genetic or racial basis for criminality. The Nazis attempted to breed the perfect race by eliminating what they perceived to be physically “inferior” peoples. Each, appropriately, has made many squeamish in regard to the use of body measurements as an index of social development. Further, while the biological research which supports historical anthropometrics is scientifically well founded and fully justifies the approach, care must be exercised to ensure that the impression is not given that researchers either are searching for, or promoting, an “aristocracy of the tall.” Being tall is not necessarily better in all circumstances, although recent work does indicate a series of social and economic advantages do accrue to the tall. However, for populations enduring an on-going sub-optimal net nutritional regime, an increase in mean height does signify improvement in the net nutritional level, and thus the general level of physical well-being. Untangling the factors responsible for change in this social indicator is complicated and height is not a complete proxy for the quality of life. However, it does provide a valuable means of assessing biological well-being in the past and the influence of social and economic developments on health.

Future Directions

Historical anthropometrics is maturing. Over the past several years a series of state-of-the-field articles and anthologies of critical works have been written or compiled. Each summarizes past accomplishments, consolidates isolated findings into more generalized conclusions, and/or points out the next steps for researchers. In 2004, the editors of Social Science History devoted an entire volume to anthropometric history, drawing upon both current work and remembrances of many of the field’s early and prominent researchers, including an integrative essay by Komlos and Baten. Anthropometric history now has its own journal, as John Komlos, who has literally established a center for historical anthropometrics in Munich, created Economics and Biology, “devoted to the exploration of the effect of socio-economic processes on human beings as biological organisms.” Early issues highlight the wide geographic, temporal, and conceptual range of historical anthropometric studies. Another project which shows the great range of current effort is Richard Steckel’s work with anthropologists to characterize very long term patterns in the movement of mean human height. Already this collaboration has produced, The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere, a compilation of essays documenting the biological well-being of New World populations beginning in 5000 B.C. using anthropological evidence. Its findings, consistent with those of some other recent anthropological studies, indicate a decline in health status for members of Western Hemisphere cultures in the pre-Columbian period as these societies began the transition from economies based on hunting and gathering to ones relying more heavily on settled agriculture. Steckel has been working to expand this approach to Europe via a collaborative and interdisciplinary project funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation, titled, “A History of Health in Europe from the Late Paleolithic Era to the Present.”

Yet even with these impressive steps, continued work, similar to early efforts in the field, is still needed. Expansion of the number and type of samples are important steps in the confirmation and consolidation of early results. One of the field’s on-going frustrations is that, except for slave records, few data sets contain physical measurements for large numbers of females. To date, female slaves and ex-slaves, some late nineteenth century U.S. college women, along with transported female convicts are the primary sources of female historical stature. Generalizations of research findings to entire populations are hindered by the small amount of data on females and the knowledge, from that data which are extant, that stature trends for the two sexes do not mimic each other. Similarly, upper class samples of either sex are not common. Future efforts should be directed at locating samples which contain data on these two understudied groups.

As Riley noted, the problem which anthropometric historians seek to resolve is not the identification of likely influences on stature. The biological sciences have provided that theoretical framework. The task at hand is to determine the relative weight of the various influences or, in Fogel’s terms, to perform “an accounting exercise of particularly complicated nature, which involves measuring not only the direct effect of particular factors but also their indirect effects and their interactions with other factors.”

More localized studies, with sample sizes adequate statistical analysis, are needed. These will allow the determination of the social, economic, and demographic factors most closely associated with human height variation. Other key areas of future investigation include the functional consequences of differences in biological well-being proxied by height, including differences in labor productivity and life expectancy. Even with the strides that have been made, in some corners, skepticism remains about the approach. To combat this, researchers must be careful to stress repeatedly what anthropometric indicators proxy, what their limits are, and how knowledge of anthropometric trends can appropriately influence our understanding of economic and social history as well as inform social policy. The field promises many future insights into the nature of and influences on historical human well-being and thus clues about how human well-being, the focus of economics generally, can be more fully and more widely advanced.

Further Reading

Survey/Overview Publications

  • Engerman, Stanley. “The Standard of Living Debate in International Perspective: Measures and Indicators.” In Health and Welfare during Industrialization, edited by Richard H. Steckel and Roderick Floud, 17-46. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997 ISBN: 0226771563.
  • Floud, Roderick, and Bernard Harris. “Health, Height, and Welfare: Britain 1700-1980.” In Health and Welfare during Industrialization, edited by Richard H. Steckel and Roderick Floud, 91-126. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997 ISBN: 0226771563.
  • Floud, Roderick, Kenneth Wachter, and Annabelle Gregory. “The Heights of Europeans since 1750: A New Source for European Economic History.” In Stature, Living Standards, and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History, edited by John Komlos, 10-24. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994 ISBN: 0226450929.
  • Floud, Roderick, Kenneth Wachter, and Annabelle Gregory. Height, Health, and History: Nutritional Status in the United Kingdom, 1750-1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990 ISBN: 0521029988.
  • Fogel, Robert W. “Nutrition and the Decline in Mortality since 1700: Some Preliminary Findings.” In Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth, edited by Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman, 439-527. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987 ISBN: 0226209296.
  • Haines, Michael R. “Growing Incomes, Shrinking People – Can Economic Development Be Hazardous to Your Health? Historical Evidence for the United States, England, and the Netherlands in the Nineteenth Century.” Social Science History 28 (2004): 249-70.
  • Haines, Michael R., Lee A. Craig, and Thomas Weiss. “The Short and the Dead: Nutrition, Mortality, and the ‘Antebellum Puzzle’ in the United States.” Journal of Economic History 63 (June 2003): 382-413.
  • Harris, Bernard. “Health, Height, History: An Overview of Recent Developments in Anthropometric History.” Social History of Medicine 7 (1994): 297-320.
  • Harris, Bernard. “The Height of Schoolchildren in Britain, 1900-1950.” In Stature, Living Standards and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History, edited by John Komlos, 25-38. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 ISBN: 0226450929.
  • Komlos, John, and Jörg Baten. The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspectives: Proceedings of a Conference Held in Munich, January 18-23, 1997. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1999.
  • Komlos, John, and Jörg Baten. “Looking Backward and Looking Forward: Anthropometric Research and the Development of Social Science History.” Social Science History 28 (2004): 191-210.
  • Komlos, John, and Timothy Cuff. Classics of Anthropometric History: A Selected Anthology, St. Katharinen, Germany: Scripta Mercaturae, 1998.
  • Komlos, John. “Anthropometric History: What Is It?” Magazine of History (Spring 1992): 3-5.
  • Komlos, John. Stature, Living Standards, and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994 ISBN: 0226450929.
  • Komlos, John. The Biological Standard of Living in Europe and America 1700-1900: Studies in Anthropometric History. Aldershot: Variorum Press, 1995 ISBN: 0860784576.
  • Komlos, John. The Biological Standard of Living on Three Continents: Further Essays in Anthropometric History. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995 ISBN: 0813320550.
  • Steckel, Richard H., and J.C. Rose. The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN: 0521617448
  • Steckel, Richard H., and Roderick Floud. Health and Welfare during Industrialization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997 ISBN: 0226771563.
  • Steckel, Richard. “Height, Living Standards, and History.” Historical Methods 24 (1991): 183-87.
  • Steckel, Richard. “Stature and Living Standards in the United States.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John J. Wallis, 265-310. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992 ISBN: 0226279456.
  • Steckel, Richard. “Stature and the Standard of Living.” Journal of Economic Literature 33 (1995): 1903-40.
  • Steckel, Richard. “A History of the Standard of Living in the United States.” In EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples.

Seminal Articles in Historical Anthropometrics

  • Aron, Jean-Paul, Paul Dumont, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. Anthropologie du Conscrit Francais. Paris: Mouton, 1972.
  • Eltis, David. “Nutritional Trends in Africa and the Americas: Heights of Africans, 1819-1839.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 12 (1982): 453-75.
  • Engerman, Stanley. “The Height of U.S. Slaves.” Local Population Studies 16 (1976): 45-50.
  • Floud, Roderick and Kenneth Wachter. “Poverty and Physical Stature, Evidence on the Standard of Living of London Boys 1770-1870.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 422-52.
  • Fogel, Robert W. “Physical Growth as a Measure of the Economic Well-being of Populations: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” In Human Growth: A Comprehensive Treatise, second edition, volume 3, edited by F. Falkner and J.M. Tanner, 263-281. New York: Plenum, 1986.
  • Fogel, Robert W., Stanley Engerman, Roderick Floud, Gerald Friedman, Robert Margo, Kenneth Sokoloff, Richard Steckel, James Trussell, Georgia Villaflor and Kenneth Wachter. “Secular Changes in American and British Stature and Nutrition.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 14 (1983): 445-81.
  • Fogel, Robert W., Stanley L. Engerman, and James Trussell. “Exploring the Uses of Data on Height: The Analysis of Long-Term Trends in Nutrition, Labor Welfare, and Labor Productivity.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 401-21.
  • Friedman, Gerald C. “The Heights of Slaves in Trinidad.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 482-515.
  • Higman, Barry W. “Growth in Afro-Caribbean Slave Populations.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 50 (1979): 373-85.
  • Komlos, John. “The Height and Weight of West Point Cadets: Dietary Change in Antebellum America.” Journal of Economic History 47 (1987): 897-927.
  • Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel, N. Bernageau, and Y. Pasquet. “Le Conscrit et l’ordinateur: Perspectives de recherches sur les Archives Militaries du XIXieme siecle Francais.” Studi Storici 10 (1969): 260-308.
  • Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. “The Conscripts of 1868: A Study of the Correlation between Geographical Mobility, Delinquency and Physical Stature and Other Aspects of the Situation of the Young Frenchmen Called to Do Military Service That Year.” In The Territory of the Historian. Translated by Ben and Sian Reynolds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979 ISBN: 0226473287.
  • Margo, Robert and Richard Steckel. “Heights of Native Born Whites during the Antebellum Period.” Journal of Economic History 43 (1983): 167-74.
  • Margo, Robert and Richard Steckel. “The Height of American Slaves: New Evidence on Slave Nutrition and Health.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 516-38.
  • Steckel, Richard. “Height and per Capita Income.” Historical Methods 16 (1983): 1-7.
  • Steckel, Richard. “Slave Height Profiles from Coastwise Manifests.” Explorations in Economic History 16 (1979): 363-80.

Articles Addressing Methodological Issues

  • Heintel, Markus, Lars Sandberg and Richard Steckel. “Swedish Historical Heights Revisited: New Estimation Techniques and Results.” In The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective, edited by John Komlos and Jörg Baten, 449-58. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1998 ISBN: 3515072209.
  • Komlos, John, and Joo Han Kim. “Estimating Trends in Historical Heights.” Historical Methods 23 (1900): 116-20.
  • Riley, James C. “Height, Nutrition, and Mortality Risk Reconsidered.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 24 (1994): 465-92.
  • Steckel, Richard. “Percentiles of Modern Height: Standards for Use in Historical Research.’ Historical Methods 29 (1996): 157-66.
  • Wachter, Kenneth, and James Trussell. “Estimating Historical Heights.” Journal of the American Statistical Association 77 (1982): 279-303.
  • Wachter, Kenneth. “Graphical Estimation of Military Heights.” Historical Methods 14 (1981): 31-42.

Publications Providing Bio-Medical Background for Historical Anthropometrics

  • Bielecki, T. “Physical Growth as a Measure of the Economic Well-being of Populations: The Twentieth Century.” In Human Growth, second edition, volume 3, edited by F. Falkner and J.M. Tanner, 283-305. New York: Plenum, 1986.
  • Bogin, Barry. Patterns of Human Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988 ISBN: 0521564387.
  • Eveleth, Phyllis B. “Population Differences in Growth: Environmental and Genetic Factors.” In Human Growth: A Comprehensive Treatise, second edition, volume 3, edited by F. Falkner and J.M. Tanner, 221-39. New York: Plenum, 1986.
  • Eveleth, Phyllis B. and James M. Tanner. Worldwide Variation in Human Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976 ISBN: 0521359163.
  • Tanner, James M. “Growth as a Target-Seeking Function: Catch-up and Catch-down Growth in Man.” In Human Growth: A Comprehensive Treatise, second edition, volume 1, edited by F. Falkner and J.M. Tanner, 167-80. New York: Plenum, 1986.
  • Tanner, James M. “The Potential of Auxological Data for Monitoring Economic and Social Well-Being.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 571-81.
  • Tanner, James M. A History of the Study of Human Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981 ISBN: 0521224888.
  • World Health Organization. “Use and Interpretation of Anthropometric Indicators of Nutritional Status.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 64 (1986): 929-41.

Predecessors to Historical Anthropometrics

  • Bowles, G. T. New Types of Old Americans at Harvard and at Eastern Women’s Colleges. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952.
  • Damon, Albert. “Secular Trend in Height and Weight within Old American Families at Harvard, 1870-1965.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 29 (1968): 45-50.
  • Damon, Albert. “Stature Increase among Italian-Americans: Environmental, Genetic, or Both?” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 23 (1965) 401-08.
  • Gould, Benjamin A. Investigations in the Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers. New York: Hurd and Houghton [for the U.S. Sanitary Commission], 1869 ISBN: 0405118570.
  • Karpinos, Bernard D. “Height and Weight of Selective Service Registrants Processed for Military Service during World War II.” Human Biology 40 (1958): 292-321.

Publications Focused on Nonstature-Based Anthropometric Measures

  • Brudevoll, J.E., K. Liestol, and L. Walloe. “Menarcheal Age in Oslo during the Last 140 Years.” Annals of Human Biology 6 (1979): 407-16.
  • Cuff, Timothy. “The Body Mass Index Values of Nineteenth Century West Point Cadets: A Theoretical Application of Waaler’s Curves to a Historical Population.” Historical Methods 26 (1993): 171-83.
  • Komlos, John. “The Age at Menarche in Vienna.” Historical Methods 22 (1989): 158-63.
  • James M. Tanner. “Trend towards Earlier Menarche in London, Oslo, Copenhagen, the Netherlands, and Hungary.” Nature 243 (1973): 95-96.
  • Trussell, James, and Richard Steckel. “The Age of Slaves at Menarche and Their First Birth.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 8 (1978): 477-505.
  • Waaler, Hans Th. “Height, Weight, and Mortality: The Norwegian Experience.” Acta Medica Scandinavica, supplement 679, 1984.
  • Ward, W. Peter, and Patricia C. Ward. “Infant Birth Weight and Nutrition in Industrializing Montreal.” American Historical Review 89 (1984): 324-45.
  • Ward, W. Peter. Birth Weight and Economic Growth: Women’s Living Standards in the Industrializing West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993 ISBN: 0226873226.

Articles with a Non-western Geographic Focus

  • Cameron, Noel. “Physical Growth in a Transitional Economy: The Aftermath of South African Apartheid.” Economic and Human Biology 1 (2003): 29-42.
  • Eltis, David. ‘Welfare Trends among the Yoruba in the Early Nineteenth Century: The Anthropometric Evidence.” Journal of Economic History 50 (1990): 521-40.
  • Greulich, W.W. “Some Secular Changes in the Growth of American-born and Native Japanese Children.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 45 (1976): 553-68.
  • Morgan, Stephen. “Biological Indicators of Change in the Standard of Living in China during the Twentieth Century.” In The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective, edited by John Komlos and Jörg Baten, 7-34. Struttart: Franz Steiner, 1998 ISBN: 3515072209.
  • Nicholas, Stephen, Robert Gregory, and Sue Kimberley. “The Welfare of Indigenous and White Australians, 1890-1955.” In The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective, edited by John Komlos and Jörg Baten, 35-54. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner: 1998 ISBN: 3515072209.
  • Salvatore, Ricardo D. “Stature, Nutrition, and Regional Convergence: The Argentine Northwest in the First Half of the Twentieth Century.” Social Science History 28 (2004): 297-324.
  • Shay, Ted. “The Level of Living in Japan, 1885-1938: New Evidence.’ In The Biological Standard of Living on Three Continents: Further Explorations in Anthropometric History, edited by John Komlos, 173-201. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995 ISBN: 0813320550.

Articles with a North American Focus

  • Craig, Lee, and Thomas Weiss. “Nutritional Status and Agriculture Surpluses in antebellum United States.” In The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective, edited by John Komlos and Jörg Baten, 190-207. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1998 ISBN: 3515072209.
  • Komlos, John, and Peter Coclanis, “On the ‘Puzzling’ Antebellum Cycle of the Biological Standard of Living: The Case of Georgia,” Explorations in Economic History 34 (1997): 433-59.
  • Komlos, John. “Shrinking in a Growing Economy? The Mystery of Physical Stature during the Industrial Revolution,” Journal of Economic History 58 (1998): 779-802.
  • Komlos, John. “Toward an Anthropometric History of African-Americans: The Case of the Free Blacks in Antebellum Maryland.” In Strategic Factors in Nineteenth Century American Economic History: A Volume to Honor Robert W. Fogel, edited by Claudia Goldin and Hugh Rockoff, 267-329. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992 ISBN: 0226301125.
  • Murray, John. “Standards of the Present for People of the Past: Height, Weight, and Mortality among Men of Amherst College, 1834-1949.” Journal of Economic History 57 (1997): 585-606.
  • Murray, John. “Stature among Members of a Nineteenth Century American Shaker Commune.” Annals of Human Biology 20 (1993): 121-29.
  • Steckel, Richard. “A Peculiar Population: The Nutrition, Health, and Mortality of American Slaves from Childhood to Maturity.” Journal of Economic History 46 (1986): 721-41.
  • Steckel, Richard. “Health and Nutrition in the American Midwest: Evidence from the Height of Ohio National Guardsmen, 1850-1910.” In Stature, Living Standards, and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History, edited by John Komlos, 153-70. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994 ISBN: 0226450929.
  • Steckel, Richard. “The Health and Mortality of Women and Children.” Journal of Economic History 48 (1988): 333-45.
  • Steegmann, A. Theodore Jr. “18th Century British Military Stature: Growth Cessation, Selective Recruiting, Secular Trends, Nutrition at Birth, Cold and Occupation.” Human Biology 57 (1985): 77-95.

Articles with a European Focus

  • Baten, Jörg. “Economic Development and the Distribution of Nutritional Resources in Bavaria, 1797-1839.” Journal of Income Distribution 9 (2000): 89-106.
  • Baten, Jörg. “Climate, Grain production, and Nutritional Status in Southern Germany during the XVIIIth Century.” Journal of European Economic History 30 (2001): 9-47.
  • Baten, Jörg and John Murray “Heights of Men and Women in the Nineteenth-century Bavaria: Economic, Nutritional, and Disease Influences.” Explorations in Economic History 37 (2000): 351-69.
  • Komlos, John. “Stature and Nutrition in the Habsburg Monarchy: The Standard of Living and Economic Development in the Eighteenth Century.” American Historical Review 90 (1985): 1149-61.
  • Komlos, John. “The Nutritional Status of French Students.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 24 (1994): 493-508.
  • Komlos, John. “The Secular Trend in the Biological Standard of Living in the United Kingdom, 1730-1860.” Economic History Review 46 (1993): 115-44.
  • Nicholas, Stephen and Deborah Oxley. “The Living Standards of Women during the Industrial Revolution, 1795-1820.” Economic History Review 46 (1993): 723-49.
  • Nicholas, Stephen and Richard Steckel. “Heights and Living Standards of English Workers during the Early Years of Industrialization, 1770-1815.” Journal of Economic History 51 (1991): 937-57.
  • Oxley, Deborah. “Living Standards of Women in Prefamine Ireland.” Social Science History 28 (2004): 271-95.
  • Riggs, Paul. “The Standard of Living in Scotland, 1800-1850.” In Stature, Living Standards, and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History, edited by John Komlos, 60-75. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1994 ISBN: 0226450929.
  • Sandberg, Lars G. “Soldier, Soldier, What Made You Grow So Tall? A Study of Height, Health and Nutrition in Sweden, 1720-1881.” Economy and History 23 (1980): 91-105.
  • Steckel, Richard H. “New Light on the ‘Dark Ages’: The Remarkably Tall Stature of Northern European Men during the Medieval Era.” Social Science History 28 (2004): 211-30.



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(2011). Historical anthropometrics. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbee047896bb431f69588a


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