Why you should care
Because how tall we are is indicative of how well we live.
It’s the plight of many 10-year-olds: Several times a day, they stand with their back against the wall, place a book on top of their head, hold their breath, then spin around. Dammit, still the same height. (Er, wait, was that just me?) Even as kids, before we have any idea that tall people make more and lead more, we, um, look up to the towering. But just where do tall people come from?
Many assume the Dutch are Europe’s tallest, and those many are wrong. According to a 2005 survey of the greater Dinaric Alps area in Southern Europe (which includes Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro, among other nations), men reached, on average, vertigo-inducing heights of
6 feet, 1.7 inches (185.6 cm)
And women measured 5 feet, 6 inches (171 cm), on average. Credit genetics — which is part “survival of the fittest” and part random luck — first and foremost, says Craig Miller, an assistant professor of genetics, genomics and development at the University of California, Berkeley. But you just can’t reach your “full potential” without proper nutrition and health care, adds Richard Steckel, a professor of economics at Ohio State University.
If pristine alpine isn’t your cup of tea, then how about sub-Saharan Africa? Some of the tallest people on the planet are the Dinka, the largest tribe in South Sudan, which is barely emerging from a bloody, yearlong civil war that left at least 50,000 dead. With men reaching an average height of 6 feet, they loom as large as the challenges that face their nascent nation, the newest in the world. What’s their secret? Well, they likely evolved to best survive in a hot climate, says Miller. Longer limbs could allow them to sweat more and not overheat, he says.
Native American men in the late 1800s were almost as tall as the average American male in 2015.
If Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng, a Dinka, isn’t your type, how about soccer stud Robin van Persie? They may live in one of the most atheistic countries on the planet, but, on average, Dutch women are 5 feet, 7 inches — 3 inches closer to heaven than the average American woman. Strangely, the Dutch were among Europe’s shortest people in the early 1800s, but they started to sprout in the mid-19th century. Not coincidentally, it was when a liberal democracy was established. As wealth trickled down to the poor, quality of living increased and so did their stature, according to researchers from the University of Groningen. Now, there’s even a lobby for the lengthy — apparently, height discrimination is a thing.
As the richest country on the planet, the United States doesn’t have much in the way of long limbs to show for it, with an average male reaching 5 feet, 9 inches. It wasn’t always that way. Native Americans and their European American counterparts were the tallest in the world in the late 1800s. Native men were a whopping 5-foot-8 (that’s just an inch shorter than an American dude in 2015!) and settlers were 5-foot-7. Since poor nutrition can cut growth spurts short, urbanization, immigration and rising income inequality is to blame for Americans’ plateau in the last century, says Steckel. And a fix often takes generations — “elevator shoes just won’t do it.”
This OZY encore was originally published Jan. 26, 2015.