Short Japanese Surrendering to Tall Americans (thanks to Wikipedia)

I have been very interested lately in a branch of economic history that until recently I knew nothing about, but which seems to offer a way of looking at the past that has never crossed my mind before.  And it is surprisingly simple, suspiciously so in fact.  You can tell a lot about changes in society simply by looking at average height.

That is all, just how tall people are.  This seems too easy, but when you think about it, it does make sense.  For an individual the biggest factor affecting his or her height is of course genetics.  But the gene pool doesn’t change over time, so if one generation is taller than another there must be something going on to explain it.  In fact it isn’t too hard to work out that the key thing is levels of nutrition in childhood, with a bit of an effect coming from exposure to disease.

Height is a fairly straight forward thing to measure and there is plenty of historical data.  Heights have been measured for all manner of reasons.  The most poignant data is that on slaves in the US.  The children of slaves were tiny, amongst the smallest human infants that have ever been measured.  The explanation is as obvious as it is unpleasant.  Babies and small children were not productive and were fed the minimum amount to keep them alive.  Once they grew up and could start working it became economically viable to feed them properly and their heights recovered, but even so the effects of neglect early in life meant that they never reached their full height and probably never developed their full mental abilities.  It is worth bearing this in mind when reading nineteenth century commentaries on race.  What seems incredibly racist to us may have seemed a lot more realistic at the time.  It also might explain why it took a generation before the campaign for equal rights to get started after the end of slavery.

There are other cases where height was a visible sign of what was going on.  During the war of 1812 between the United States and Britain it was noted that  American sailors were a good deal taller than British ones.  In a naval battle at the time this was far from an academic observation.  Americans continued to be taller than Europeans for a long time, getting taller still as their economy developed.  Height and longevity are linked so the well fed Americans were able to enjoy a long life as well as a prosperous one.  The idea of Americans as tremendously tall was something I grew up with as a given.  One image that reinforced it in particular was the photo of the Japanese delegation surrendering at the end of the Second World War, dwarfed by the Americans.

The Japanese at the time were indeed remarkably short, but this was an aberration in Japanese history.  Historically the Japanese are no different in height to any other humans and modern Japanese are only a little shorter than modern Americans.  What was different in the early Twentieth Century was that the Japanese chose to devote a very large proportion of their national resources to building up their military power, resulting in a level of malnourishment among their children.

The most intriguing thing is that the Americans are no longer the tallest.  In fact since towards the end of the twentieth century average height has actually been falling.  The giants of the world now are the Dutch, with the Scandinavians not far behind.  It is interesting that the tallest human beings come not from the most powerful countries or even from the most technologically advanced, but from ones that are peaceful, well organised and have a high degree of equality.


This isn’t a field that is very clearly defined but the leading author is Richard Steckel.  This is a good review of his work with plenty of further reading at the end.

And here is a good example of the kind of question this approach raises.

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