Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Getting Taller: Study on European Height (DNA & Dietary Changes)

This is a very cool paper.  It richly compiles biometric data on average height of Europeans from the Mesolithic Age, through the Neolithic, Corded, Beaker, Medieval to the Modern.

Grasgruber et al, 2013

The authors make some fairly reasonable assertions in my opinion.  One being that tallness is associated with certain male haplogroups such as I-M170 and R-U106.  Check out the tables in the back of the paper.

That is not at all to suggest that tallness is associated with the paternal lineage, because it is not (unfortunately).  It is suggesting that when looking at a demographic slice that we may associate certain traits with identifiable lineages of ancient groups.  The authors also assert that lactase persistent European populations are taller, on average,  than those who are not.

Below is a snip I made from some of the material.  You can see that the Hunter-Fisher societies were physically robust.  This big frame ends abruptly with the Neolithic Lengyels and the Mesolithic Western Europeans (BTW, don't be tricked by the nonsensical age system).  Essentially the Neolithic represents a big change in the physique of individuals, being both more gracile, but also more sickly, and with bad teeth.\\

This again changes with people who were likely lactase persistent, being the Corded and Beaker peoples in which the average height skyrockets.  The authors continue to develop this reasoning with more recent data on Europeans in the last few centuries where economic data is well known.

Culture of MenAgecmft/inches
Gravettian, Moravian Paleolithic176.35' 8"
Gravettian (Mediterranean)Paleolithic1836' 0"
Carpathian and EasternMesolithic173.25' 6"
Western EuropeMesolithic163.15' 34"
Lengyel, CarpathianLate Neolihtic1625' 3"
Corded and Bell BeakerChalcolithic1695' 54"
There is an unrelated, but very relevant, study on the DNA analysis of bacteria taken from the mouths of ancient people showing the transition to complex carbohydrates, then to dairy, to sugar, etc.  I'll post if I can find it again.

The Role of Nutrition and Genetics as Key Determinants of the Positive Height Trend.
P. Grasgruber J. Cacek T. Kalina M. Sebera, Economics and Human Biology, 2014 [Link]

The aim of this study was to identify the most important variables determining urrent differences in physical stature in Europe and some of its overseas offshoots such as Australia, New Zealand and USA. We collected data on the height of young men from 45 countries and compared them with long-term averages of food consumption from the FAOSTAT database, various development indicators compiled by the World Bank and the CIA World Factbook, and frequencies of several genetic markers. Our analysis demonstrates that the most important factor explaining current differences in stature among nations of European origin is the level of nutrition, especially the ratio between the intake of high-quality proteins from milk products, pork meat and fish, and low-quality proteins from wheat. Possible genetic factors such as the distribution of Y haplogroup IM170, combined frequencies of Y haplogroups I-M170 and R1b-U106, or the phenotypic distribution of lactose tolerance emerge as comparably important, but the available data are more limited. Moderately significant positive correlations were also found with GDP per capita, health expenditure and partly with the level of urbanization that influences male stature in Western Europe. In contrast, male height correlated inversely with children’s mortality and social inequality (Gini index). These results could inspire social and nutritional guidelines that would lead to the optimization of physical growth in children and maximization of the genetic potential, both at the individual and national level.



  1. Averages can be very misleading: the English are medium sized (males) to short (females) and yet they have extremely high lactase persistance and a very long history of dairy consumption (apparently they quit fish almost totally and replaced it with milk and other dairies in the Neolithic, not returning to substantial fish consumption until the Danelaw). Instead I would not think of Bosnians nor Greeks as particularly strong in lactase persistance (the Balcans are rather low in this phenotype).

    It's surely true that nutrition plays a role anyhow. I know that Galicians used to be the shortest population of Spain, almost a topic of ethnic jokes, but today the younger generations are the tallest ones, even more than Basques, who are historically taller than the English. No doubt improved living conditions, among them childhood nutrition, has played a key role in this development.

    I do not see any clear link between the aforementioned patrilineages and height. Irish for example have very little of said lineages (their R1b is almost totally of the Southern clade) but are quite tall, clearly taller than their English neighbors, who have plenty of R1b-North clade. Baltic peoples also lack either lineage, at least in substantial numbers, never mind Greeks, who are rather tall (and even more when considering women). Sardinians also are rather short, even for Italian standards, and yet have plenty of Y-DNA I. It is clearly not a matter of patrilineages.

    It may be, partly, an issue of proteins though: some of the tallest populations eat a lot of meat (and also dairies, including the Greek: who are the most cheese-loving people on Earth, even if it is 99% feta). My experience in Croatia was of sausage and cheese breakfasts (often spiced with rakia, a local liquor), instead in Serbia they were more standard European in their breakfasts: coffee with cookies for example. It may well have to do with eating more animal protein vs more carbs. However this still does not explain why the English are, relatively speaking, so short.

    1. I didn't realize Paleolithic Europeans were so tall. Like you said, a lot of that may be dietary, however I wonder what would have changed in the Mesolithic?

      I would have liked to have seen Bell Beaker and Corded Ware height broken out from the Chalcolithic category though. I believe in some parts of Europe, despite having strong builds, Beakers were actually slightly shorter. I can't remember where I read that.

  2. "I didn't realize Paleolithic Europeans were so tall."

    You seem to have misunderstood me - or are you elaborating on your own? I never mentioned Paleolithic height, nor I can with any security. Do you have any reliable data?

    "... I wonder what would have changed in the Mesolithic?"

    Not sure if I am following your thought thread but there was a serious ecological crisis at the end of the Ice Age (expansion of forests, followed by the Younger Dryas sudden freeze, and expansion of forests again) that caused serious damage to the megafauna and surely forced foragers to look for other food sources. In Europe they leaned a lot towards mollusks and small hunt, while in West Asia and NE Africa they favored wild cereals and such, leading to farming (same in other core Neolithic world areas, I guess). Mesolithic foragers were still heavily reliant on animal protein but seemingly their resources were not as plentiful as before.

    In any case I do not know of any paleohistorical data on height, which would be nice to know about. I do recall from old discussions however that, while Gravettian remains (Crô-Magnon and such) may be rather tall, Magdalenian ones are instead short, so maybe the trend to height loss was ongoing already in the Late UP.

    My point was not in any case to exclude genetic causes of height but just relativize them a bit. It is well known that dietary change among modern Japanese has not caused any major increase in height, so genetics do matter - but the case of Galicians, for example, shows that it is not the only factor. I'm pretty sure that if you get Spanish height averages from decades ago, it would be quite lower than today's - and that's definitely diet, particularly at young age (famine hurts body and mind development), and other life-quality factors such as exposure to diseases.

    In this sense, a co-factor, in generally greater height in certain parts of Europe (North but also some southern areas like the Basque Country) may be caused by traditional property structure: where latifundia or minifundia dominated, the food resources of the masses were generally quite worse and their height (and general health) suffered as result. Where more stable middle-sized family property dominated, nutrition tended to be quite better and that influenced positively general health and height. On the "negative" side, it forced birth control or emigration, because the property could not be divided further.

    This phenomenon is well studied by economical historians dealing with Medieval Europe, who describe these two property and demographic models as "Northern" and "Mediterranean" (although their actual divide is less clear cut).

    1. I forgot the relevant link on the end-of-Glaciation ecological crisis: http://leherensuge.blogspot.com/2010/08/mammoths-died-off-because-of-forest.html

  3. My guess would be it's a combination of lineage and diet i.e. three populations might have on average mostly short, average or tall genes however if their diet is poor then all three may be short. If they all get a good diet then they grow to their ancestral limits.

    If so this would effect relative population heights over time i.e. a genetically average height population with a good diet might be taller than a population with tall genes and a poor diet *at the time* but when the second population gets a good diet also some time later then they over take.

    My guess on the lineage is there will prove to be two branches of paleo HG or a paleo / meso split with the larger (but dumber?) ones pushed north or up into mountains.

    (My guess on the English is they are a mixture of short Welsh and tall Dutch but their average height was still above the average for Europe for a long time because of diet but other people caught up and overtook them since.)

    1. The Welsh are short? Not sure but the French are, particularly men (v. http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-height-of-europeans-and-myth-of.html) and "Neolithically" and "Celtically" speaking the English are NW French/Belgians (plus some paleo substrate plus lesser anglo-danish input in Middle Ages, plus various erratics). However, while French men are shorter on average than English, French women are taller (English women are among the shortest of Europe).

      Yes, the Dutch are tall (tallest) but the English (or British/Irish in general) are not tall at all. Brits are in ranges that belong to West Europe (Islands+France+Iberia) rather than North-Central Europe, where the peak of height is.

      Something interesting is that the Irish appear to be slightly but systematically taller than Brits, in both genders.

      It's also important to note that while the trend of men's shortness points south, the trend of women's shortness points rather to the North (Britain, Finland) and East (Finland, Bulgaria, Turkey).

      Diet and in general infancy conditions must have something to do. Galicians used to be the shortest of all Spain but recently their younger generations showed to be the tallest, so it's not just genes.

    2. "The Welsh are short?"

      It may have been diet like the Galicians but the old photos i have seen of the Welsh mountain side of my family tree were short, dark and built like tanks whereas the Anglo (Dutch-like) side were all tall, slim and fair - all very Tolkein-esque when you see the two groups side by side.

    3. "It's also important to note that while the trend of men's shortness points south, the trend of women's shortness points rather to the North (Britain, Finland) and East (Finland, Bulgaria, Turkey)."

      Greater sexual dimorphism among the northern segment?

    4. "The Welsh are short?"

      It may just be diet but it's been an idea for a long time complicated by regional variation. The short, dark Welsh are concentrated in the remoter more mountainous parts (or as random outliers among the general population). It was studied in the past but those kind of studies probably aren't looked at nowadays. Some examples are referenced here.



  4. → http://www.natcen.ac.uk/our-research/research/welsh-health-survey/

    Height, weight and BMI

    The 'average man' was 5ft 10in (177cm) tall and weighed 13st 4lb (84kg).
    The 'average woman' was 5ft 4in (162cm) and weighed 10st 13lb (69kg).

    They are indistinct from English in this aspect (and surely in most other aspects, as English are in essence germanized Britons ~ Welsh). Actually that was reflected in my review of the data (linked above): men's height is unremarkable and women's height is rather short for both England and Wales in the framework of Europe. All the rest are false archetypes.

    Scots are similar too, while Irish score somewhat taller (more notable in women's size).

    "Greater sexual dimorphism among the northern segment?"

    In Britain and Finland only. On the opposite pole, Hungary, France, Switzerland and Portugal could be described as having lower dimorphism (for height), as their men are rather short but their women are near-average.

    In any case there's no Northern segment that can be considered as a unity, nor Southern segment either: it's patchy with the greatest height being towards Central Europe, understood here as a trapezoid with vortexes in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Lithuania and Bosnia (in the case of women rather Greece). The tallest average is not in the middle of this figure but at one of the vortexes: the Netherlandas. However height abruptly collapses when crossing the North Sea or the Rhine to the West.

    So if you want to imagine a prehistoric origin of this trait ("tallness"), imagine it Corded Ware maybe. Not necessarily true however, just a reasonable rough fit.

    1. "They are indistinct from English"

      Yes, I'm thinking now the Welsh being considered shorter was probably a diet thing from the past.

      "it's patchy ... So if you want to imagine a prehistoric origin of this trait ("tallness"), imagine it Corded Ware maybe. Not necessarily true however, just a reasonable rough fit."

      Yes. My theory (more like half a theory really) is paleo cromagnon height may have survived in refuges leading to that patchiness you describe.

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