What average human heights don't tell

The changing height of Homo erectus:

Today, I think it's fair to say that the variation of stature in Homo erectus was more or less like the variation within living people. There are short and tall populations today, varied in ecology and latitude. The average stature of young men in the Netherlands today is 184 cm. Adult women in the Philippines average only 150 cm. So the best way to compare statures is to illustrate the range.

That being said, I don't think we know how stature has evolved over time. We do have some data points -- the Neandertals were shorter than Upper Paleolithic Europeans, for example, but seem to have been around the same height as Mesolithic people (and a shade taller than Neolithic Europeans). The Dmanisi people were on the short end of the human range, but not unusually so. The variability within Lower Pleistocene East Africans seems high, but I'd want to see a serious test compared to human populations.

It's a case in the fossil record where discovering more seems to have resulted in us knowing less. But that's just because we can now reject several categorial statements that people used to accept uncritically.

More like this

Actual prehistory has already happened, but prehistory studies is a fast-moving field with occasional very dramatic changes, since it's all reconstruction from tiny bits of widely scattered and mostly hidden evidence. It's like a treasure hunt

I first became interested in the final phase of prehistory 40 years ago, and it wasn't much fun then because archeologists were terrified of speculation. You couldn't get them even to sat that the Hallstatt civilization might have been the Celts.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink

Yes, I did notice the John Hawks post on the height of Homo erectus. There are of course, in Hawks usual style, arguments which ridicule recent publications which identify height as the essential ingredient in understanding the potential of the modern human skeleton. Hawks correctly describes how throughout the planet, where Homo erectus fossils have been unearthed, such as China, Java (Indonesia), Georgia and Africa, in all of these different ecological systems, the stature of Homo erectus is different. In China, as an example, Peking Man, at full stature, is estimated to have been below 5 foot high (1.50m), and Nariokotome Boy (KNM-WT 15000), from Kenya, is estimated to have had the possibility of achieving a height of 6'1" (1.85m). Of course, latitude and climate played essential roles in such stature differences, because Kenya has a hot tropical climate, and Beijing of course is freezing cold.

Of course, there are two points which Hawks fails to mention, as these points make a case for recent problems of accelerated growth, as seen in modern children:

1. While Nariokotome Boy (KNM-WT 15000), is estimated to have had a chance of achieving a height of 6'1" (1.85m), this height is actually a guess, since the actual Nariokotome Boy skeleton, is that of a 12 year old boy, who, more than likely died of a tooth abscess. What amazed physical anthropologists, when the Nariokotome Boy fossil was discovered, was that at 12 yrs (as defined by the teeth and epiphyseal plates of the limb bones), he was already 5'3" (1.60m) tall. Imagine such a height, with no antibiotics to prevent stunting caused by infectious disease, and, a diet without dairy foods (milk, cheese, yogart etc.).

2. Although it is true, that in modern populations there are short people and tall people. During the age of Homo erectus, overall within-group height of a band (tribe) would have been quite similar. After all, as described by Christopher Ruff, all mammals, which specialize in particular ecosystems/environments, and who do not migrate, do tend to establish similar heights. Meaning, chances are, modern human populations, have an unusual degree of within-group height difference, because of recent migration and an idea of one diet for all.

Obviously, modern children have a rate of growth and development which should be slower than Homo erectus. This is the whole tenant behind the idea of neoteny. While, modern human beings are animals, we are of course, not a wild animal, which Homo erectus most certainly was. So, one has to wonder, since brain development and somatic development (growth of the physical body), grow in unison, has modern medicine, the modern diet, and a lack of conflict (risk of early death), uncoupled what should be normal growth and development, and as a cost to such discovery, we are now witnessing many disorders of the phenotype, such as autism.


By Mark Houston (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink