Anthropometric history

Anthropometric history

Anthropometric history is a term coined in 1989 by John Komlos to refer to the study of the history of human height, focusing on explaining secular trends, cycles of various lengths and cross sectional patterns by changes in the socio-economic and epidemiological environment.

Development of the field

The systematic study of human physical stature reaches back into the 18th century (Tanner, 1981). By the 1830s, Adolphe Quetelet and René Villermé recognized that biological outcomes were influenced by both the natural and the socio-economic environment (Villermé, 1829, Quetelet, 1842). However, until French historians of the Annales School began to explore the socio-economic correlates of human height in the 1960s, the topic interested primarily scholars of sister disciplines such as anthropology, auxology, or even military history (Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Bernageau, and Pasquet, 1969).

The true expansion of the use of anthropometrics in the social sciences began in the mid-1970s among cliometricians who were interested in measuring living standards in the past primarily in order to understand better hitherto hidden effects of economic development on the growth of the human organism. Anthropometric history uses physical stature as an indicator of well-being to "complement" conventional indicators of living standards by the biological standard of living (Baten, 2000; Craig and Weiss, 1998; Cuff, 2005; Steckel, 1995; Sunder, 2004; Woitek, 2003).

Nevertheless, this is not to say that height itself has a direct benefit on economic success or an increased standard of living. Rod Usher's "A Tall Story For Our Time" shows that one's tallness is a product of favorable living conditions. Thus, growth in human height within a designated area could well be an accurate measurement of economic growth and development there.


There are many motivations to study the field (Robert Fogel, 1994). Developmental economists are concerned both with the impact of nutrition on labor productivity, and with social policy questions pertaining to poverty, particularly among children (Dasgupta 1993). The need for alternative measures of the standard of living is particularly important for economic historians exploring the distant past when conventional indicators are unavailable (Engerman, 1976; Steckel 1979). The most immediate concern of economic historians in the 1970s was to extend the existing indexes of living standards backward in time, to illuminate the famous debate about the living conditions of workers during the industrial revolution, and to provide indexes where none existed before. For instance, conventional measures of money income obviously did not exist for subgroups of the society such as females or children or self-sufficient peasants (Komlos 1998).

Nutritional status

The intake of nutrition and expenditure of energy is called net nutritional status. Among adults nutritional status affects weight, but not height. The relationship between the height of a population and its demographic and economic structure is based on the fact that human growth is related to food consumption, and therefore to such economic variables as per capita income and the price of food. It is also related to demographic processes inasmuch as population growth affects agricultural productivity. Since the body's ability to process nutrients is influenced by its disease encounters the epidemiological environment, too, plays a role in determining the height of a population. The height of a population is, therefore, a historical record of the caloric and protein intake of the youth of that population as well as of environmental factors such as disease encounters.

In addition, claims on nutrient intake such as work during adolescence, frequency, length and severity of endemic or epidemic diseases or pollutants affect growth. Hence, improvements in medical technology and public sanitation have a substantial impact on physical growth as they did in the 20th century (Komlos and Kriwy 2003). The cost of medical services are important as well as how medical institutions are organized because that affects transaction costs and entitlements to health services thereby determining access (entitlements) to health care facilities. The distribution of income within a society also matters insofar as there are diminishing returns to nutrient intake. That implies that the height of children of the rich are expected to increase by less than the decline of the children of the poor, and therefore the two effects do not cancel each other out. The net effect is negative: with income held constant an increase in inequality implies that average height diminishes. Hence, the average height of the population is sensitive to aspects of welfare that GNP per capita data do not capture. These include the political economy of health care systems, education, transfers to the poor, and government policy toward equality (hence taxation policy). The analysis often pertains to the determination of trends in height in order to eliminate possible genetic components and analysis of the effects on height of the various variables listed above (Komlos and Baur 2004).


Human physical stature is a useful supplementary indicator of well-being. Height and weight are components and a relatively easily measured indicator of biological welfare. In addition, we gain hitherto unknown insights of the effect of economic processes on the human organism. Hence, anthropometric history emphasizes that well-being encompasses more than the command over goods and services. Rather, it is multidimensional, and height, weight, health in general, and longevity all contribute to it—independently of purchasing power. In many ways, such indexes provide a more nuanced view of the impact of dynamic economic processes on the quality of life than income or GNP per capita by itself. Anthropometric indicators are not meant to be substitutes for, but complements of, conventional measures of living standards.

ee also

* Auxology


* Baten, J. (2000) "Economic Development and the Distribution of Nutritional Resources in Bavaria, 1797-1839," in Journal of Income Distribution 9, 89-106.
* Craig, L. and T. Weiss (1998), ‘Nutritional Status and Agricultural Surpluses in the Antebellum United States’, in J. Komlos and J. Baten (eds), The Biological Standard of Living in Comparative Perspective, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner.
* Cuff, T. (2005), The Hidden Cost of Economic Development: The Biological Standard of Living in Antebellum Pennsylvania, Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate.
* Dasgupta, P. (1995), An Enquiry into Well-Being and Destitution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Engerman, S. (1976), ‘The Height of U.S. Slaves’, Local Population Studies, Vol. 16, no.1, 45-50.
* Fogel, R. (1994), ‘Economic Growth, Population Theory, and Physiology: The Bearing of Long-Term Processes on the making of Economic Policy’, American Economic Review, 369-394.
* Komlos, J. (1998) "Shrinking in a Growing Economy? The Mystery of Physical Stature during the Industrial Revolution," Journal of Economic History 58, 3: 779-802.
* Komlos, J. (1989) Nutrition and Economic Development in the Eighteenth-Century Habsburg Monarchy: An Anthropometric History, Princeton University Press: 1989.
* Komlos, J. and Baur, M. (2004) “From the Tallest to (One of) the Fattest: The Enigmatic Fate of the Size of the American Population in the Twentieth Century,” Economics and Human Biology 2, no. 1: 57-74.
* Komlos, J. and Kriwy, P. (2003) “The Biological Standard of Living in the Two Germanies,” German Economic Review 4, 4: 493-507.
* Le Roy Ladurie, E., N. Bernageau, and Y. Pasquet (1969), ‘Le Conscrit et l'ordinateur: Perspectives De Recherches Sur Les Archives Militaires du XIXe Siècle Francais’, Studi Storici, 10.
* Quetelet, Adolphe M. (1842) A Treatise on Man and the Development of his Faculties. Edinburgh: Chambers.
* Steckel, R.H. (1979), ‘Slave Height Profiles from Coastwise Manifests’, Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 16, No. 4.
* Steckel, R.H. (1995), ‘Stature and the Standard of Living’, Journal of Economic Literature, 1903-40.
* Sunder, M. (2004), ‘The Making of Giants in a Welfare State: The Norwegian Experience in the Twentieth Century’, Economics and Biology, 75-86.
* Tanner, James M. (1981) A History of the Study of Human Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Villermé, L. R. (1829), ‘Mémoire sur la taille de l'homme en France’, Annales d'Hygiène Publique et de Médicine Légale, pp. 351-396.
* Woitek, U. (2003), ‘Height Cycles in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, Economics and Human Biology, 243-258.

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