Monday, September 19, 2016

Being Tall

In places where swaddling was recently practiced, the desired end-state was to develop infants into taller, straighter adults.  Algonquians, Mongolians and Swedes bound the child to a board in infancy which would help develop the musculature in the most erect posture.

Why they troubled to do this is simple.  Crooked, curved people are historically looked upon as the lowest social order, whilst the fully erect and tall are viewed as strong, healthy, noble.

The English word crooked, as in "Crooked Hillary" or Richard Nixon's famous retort, "I am not a crook", is to literally say that someone is a scoundrel, felon or thief.  The etymology of crook connotes a crooked (curved) person, such as a haggardly witch, a hunchback or a sickly beggar.  Parents want their children to sit up straight, walk straight, and in many places practice walking with a book on the head.

In all likelihood Beakerfolk swaddled their children based on a number of clues, and by extension they did this to make them straighter and taller.  They likely had an active understanding of the effects of swaddling and did so intentionally if they were like later peoples such as the Mongolians, who did so with the intent of improving height and posture.

When we speak of Bell Beaker brachycephaly, we are usually speaking of two separate, and not necessarily related, phenomena.  One is natural brachycephaly which is a long-term human trend, especially in the northern mammal populations.  This may have been further exaggerated due to child rearing practices of Beakers.  The other is the flattened occiput (common to many Beakers), which is entirely the result of an external factor; as I've speculated for a long time, swaddling bands, clothes and cradles. [See here]

Swaddled Beaker babies may not seem that interesting at first, but given the hypothesized severity of the practice another cultural dimension comes to light, that of physical height.

Most Beaker men across Europe seem to have been the height of the Amesbury Archer, 5.8" (176cm), more or less.  This is taken by measuring the femur, although the health of the collagen may be factored in as well (this would likely make a greater difference between many Neolithic populations).  5.7, 5.8 is the mean height of diagnostic Beakers, which is tall for the age.

Some Beaker men were very tall for the times.  Cornaclery Man, Racton Man, Gristhorpe Man and Hindow Burial 1 were all in the 6.1 to 6.3 range (186-192cm).  (There are others, but I just pulled these out of the backpocket)  Now remember, this is based on the skeletal structure alone and other factors may be at play, such as the elongation of the spine as a result of infant binding.

The curvature of the spine is measured in Cobb Angles, which would suggest a person with a "theoretically" flat back would be 3" (or 7.6cm) taller than natural.  It's difficult to know the degree to which Beaker backs were malformed by cradle boards, but their heads were definitely malformed, so low degree backs (not zero degree) are not impossible.  So with that being said, it's possible that many Bell Beakers (men and women) were even taller than their skeletal predisposition, if only by an 1 to 1.5 inches (2 to 4 cm).

Maybe, maybe not.  But people will do anything to add an inch.


  1. I find the subject of height when studying ancient to modern population evolutions very fascinating, I'm glad you blog on the subject. This was a GREAT read. I never knew that Beakers were 5"7-5"8 typically, this is an interesting range because I have also read that 5"7 was the estimated height of the Yamnaya.

    I have a pet theory that AMH height played a role in the demise of the Neanderthals. Long legs are of prime importance to maximum running speed and also the distance a human is able to travel before getting winded. If AMH were able to attack Neanderthals and simply run away before retaliation was possible it leads to believe me that height would be the determining factor in any sort of Human against Neanderthal altercation. Especailly during the Aurignacian era where the skeletons were typically also very tall.

    1. I think you're correct to see how physique plays into combat. The Late Neolithic begins an arms race, no pun intended.