The factors affecting the size of human bodies are complex, but primarily involve genetics, environment, and donuts. That last factor, of course, may be just a recent shorthand for lifestyle, but can a pre-donut existence really be called living? It’s hard to say. While donut dispensaries may boost life satisfaction levels, at least in the short term, some say that human body sizes have responded in ways that pretty much will only guarantee a short term.
The Donut Factor, however, is just a tiny grease spot on the grand human timeline. So it may be surprising to note that compared to our ancient ancestors, we are shorter, lighter, and smaller-boned. It is only within the last few centuries that average height has begun to increase again. And I’m sure it comes as no surprise that in more recent times, times when the world population is nearly nine billion, that our average weight has been on such an upward trend that it now not only threatens the world’s sustainable food supply, but likely the earth’s rotational balance as well. This deserves a closer look.
The first modern humans are considered to be the Cro-Magnon people of Europe from around 40,000 years ago. They are considered modern because they were the first to hyphenate their name, thus giving it a more urbane feel. They were also comparative giants, with the males averaging six feet. Being that they were relatively fresh out of Africa, this isn’t surprising. Their African kin had long since figured out that a tall, lean body was a useful evolutionary adaptation to a warmer climate, allowing both for better thermoregulation and a sightline on animals that didn’t care what size they were as long as they were slow and tasty.
The reason that most historical height data tends to focus on those European males of old, instead of other populations, is probably because most scientists are old European males. But they do concede that the general body size trend has been worldwide. In any case, they note that by 10,000 years ago, the average European male had shrunk to 5’ 4”, but was considerably bulkier due to their physically demanding lifestyle. This did not sit well with them, but standing did not much improve the view, so they responded to this humiliating loss of eight inches by wiping out all the remaining ice age megafauna.
Scientists attribute this resizing to three things: 1) adaptation to the new ice age, which on top of the already colder northern climate, was necessary for more efficient thermoregulation, 2) the introduction of agriculture, which initially was about as reliable as the Rain Gods, and thus made malnutrition their principal crop, and 3) the domestication of wild animals, which, along with the food and services they provided, also introduced new diseases into their midst. All agree that it was a tough period to be alive, and that with all the difficult introductions going on, it would have been a great time for the introduction of donuts. Alas, it was not yet to be.
By 600 years ago, those European males only managed to add an inch back, on average, to attain the height of 5’ 5”. Poor diet and health are said to be the main reasons for their smaller stature, no great surprise given the influence of astrology and bloodletting on agriculture and medicine. Perhaps if the people had let a bit more blood out of the astrologists, they could have risen to greater heights.
Enormous improvements in nutrition and health care in the past few hundred years are seen as the principal drivers of the current height revolution. Scientists note that good nutrition specifically correlates very well with a taller stature. Average male heights throughout Europe and America have risen dramatically during this time, from a short end of 5’ 8.5” in France, Italy, and Spain, to a tall end of 5’ 11.75” in the Netherlands. American males, by the way, average 5’ 9”. They just act like they’re bigger than everyone else.
To my knowledge, no one has yet proposed a theory as to why the Dutch should be so much taller, so let me throw out the first ball. Or donut, as the case would have it. Donuts, called “oil cakes” by the Dutch, were first invented and enjoyed by them in the early 19th century, giving them a head start perhaps not only on the growth of the donut economy, but the growth of the Dutch people. Now I know some may say that donuts do not generally, or even remotely, correlate well with nutrition, but, well, science doesn’t have all the answers.
In the interest of full disclosure though, over the most recent 40 year span, global average weight has risen by nearly 18 pounds per person, a 14% increase. Some of this, of course, can be attributed to the 1.3% increase in global average height over this period, but far from all of it. However, as a 6’ 0”, 160 pound male of northern European heritage, I refuse to accept the heretical insinuations that donuts and their kind could be responsible for the rest without further scientific evidence. If the scientists can change their minds about alcohol and coffee, I can wait them out on donuts.