The long-term ups and downs of height are a striking index of major shifts in wellbeing, new research shows.
What did the Romans ever do for us? It seems they added an inch to the average height of their British subjects — they came, they saw, we prospered. And after taking a plunge during the Anglo-Saxon era, the height of the average inhabitant rose again in the wake of the Norman Conquest. These are just two of the findings of new research using data from skeletal remains to calculate how the average height of men rose or fell over 2,000 years of history in what is now England. The result is a startling picture of changes in health and wellbeing.
He and his team worked on the basis that height, linked with childhood nutrition, is a good measure of wellbeing and can be estimated accurately from the length of a full grown man’s femur. Biologists and epidemiologists have long recognised that although the main causes of variation in individual height may be genetic, changes in the economic, social and environmental circumstances are reflected in the mean heights of different groups of people at any given time.
The working paper (which can be read in full here) reveals that men in this area of Britain became taller when it was under Roman occupation (200–410AD), with average height rising from 167cm (5ft 6in) to 170cm (5ft 7in). The researchers suggest this rise in average height coincided with the Romans’ improved water supply and sanitation systems and a more varied diet. Heights did not decline immediately after the Romans left Britain in 410, but fell from 600AD. The paper highlights previous research suggesting that health may have deteriorated when populations moved out of the towns and cities set up by the Romans, abandoning the more hygienic water supplies and waste-disposal systems. Plague and pestilence then became common and infectious diseases were on the increase, with archaeological evidence also suggesting that diets were inadequate, notes the paper.
Average heights of men started to go up again after the Norman Conquest of 1066, says the paper. By the end of the early medieval period, heights had increased to 172cm, increasing to 173cm (5ft 8in) in the 1100s, edging closer to heights achieved at the start of the 20th century. The paper suggests that a warmer climate may have contributed to good general health among the population, noting that records for the 10th to 12th centuries show that England at the time ‘saw the warmest weather of the millennium’. Over this period of 200 years, average heights increased by more than 5cm (2in), says the paper.
After 1200AD, men became shorter in stature, and archaeological evidence shows that at this time rural populations were decreasing, farmland had become degraded and there were shortages of crop seeds. The paper also notes that other research suggests temperatures turned colder over the century, with weather becoming far more changeable until the early 1300s. The Great Famine (1315–1317) may have exaggerated the decline in average heights, but the paper says men’s height had started to decline several decades before.
Heights fell after 1650, reaching just 169cm (5ft 6½in) in the late 1600s — a decline that continued until the early 1800s. Previous research suggests average life expectancy had declined too: people born between 1650–1750 could expect to live just 35 years — down from 40 years in the late 1500s. The nature of work after 1650 had changed, with manual labour putting more of a toll on the body. During the Industrial Revolution, the demands on workers were much greater than in medieval times. The increasing number of working days, coupled with poorer working conditions, could explain why average height went down even though wages grew after 1650. The decline in heights could also be associated with increasing inequalities in society, the paper suggests.
The study compares the average heights of Englishmen with similar work previously carried out by Richard Steckel of Ohio State University, who created a European health index. Although the European and the English sets of evidence provide a consistent history, the Oxford-led study shows that the English may have escaped the worst of a Little Ice Age, when the medieval warm period was succeeded by a period of cooling with the health effects more marked across continental Europe.
And what about the future? Galofré-Vilà said: ‘Since the early 19th century, average heights for Englishmen have increased substantially, reaching 175cm in 1950 and 177cm [5ft 10in] in 1970 — among the tallest of any population worldwide. If mean heights are a good measure of well-being, it seems we are now in previously uncharted territory. Within the last 100 years, the average heights of Englishmen have risen more than at any time in recorded history.’
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This article is reproduced, slightly edited, from the Oxford University News and Events page, with permission. Roman soldier by Meunierd via Shutterstock. Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence. Portrait courtesy of Dr Gregori Galofré-Vilà. Illustration from W H Swepstone’s
The Two Widows (1853) from the British Library via Flickr under Creative Commons licence.