Standing Tall: Plains Indians Enjoyed Height, Health Advantage
These results contradict the modern image of American Indians as being sickly victims succumbing to European disease, said Richard Steckel, co-author of the study and professor of economics and anthropology at Ohio State University.
"What these height data show is the ingenuity and adaptability of the equestrian Plains tribes in the face of remarkable stress from disease and hardship," Steckel said.
The average adult male Plains Indian stood 172.6 centimeters tall--about 5 feet 8 inches. The next tallest people in the world at that time were Australian men, who averaged 172 centimeters. European American men of the time averaged 171 centimeters tall, and men living in European countries were typically several centimeters shorter.
Important differences in life style were density of settlement and the extent of movement. European-Americans were more densely settled and sedentary, while the Plains populations were widely spread and typically moved many times per year. As a result, the tribal populations were seldom in one place long enough for waste or parasites to accumulate. The importance of waste (or lack of it) for health has been established from sanitary measures that preceded the germ theory of disease (Szreter, 1988). The incidence of endemic diseases was worsened for European-Americans by sedentary life styles and significantly higher population densities, which increased their exposure to disease causing organisms. Thus, it seems plausible that while epidemic diseases were devastating on the Great Plains, European-Americans suffered relatively more from chronic, endemic diseases (Cohen 1989, Chap. 6).
It is possible that greater inequality among whites adversely affected their health relative to Native Americans. Height and health are known to be sensitive to inequality (Steckel, 1983, 1995). Hunter-gatherer and the Plains equestrian societies were known for their egalitarian practices of sharing food and shelter, and for their communal efforts in caring for the sick or wounded (Ewers, 1968, 1980; Isenberg, 1993; Prince, 1998; Whelan, 1993). As small communities of similar ethnic heritage where people knew each other well and misfortune was readily distinguished from shirking, sharing and helping others in need was a form of social insurance. Some status items did exist (as known from oral histories, artifacts, and trading company inventories) and some individuals such as chiefs exercised considerable power, but Plains societies also exhibited social and economic fluidity (Eggan, 1966; Ewers, 1968). Hazards such as horse raids, wars, winter storms or disease destroyed herds of the wealthy and mitigated social entrenchment. These hazards also inclined the rich to be generous so that favors could be returned in times of need. Unlike the capitalist societies of the nineteenth century, most wealth on the Great Plains was readily moveable, which limited the amounts that could be accumulated. In contrast, vast quantities of wealth could be acquired in more impersonal capitalist societies in the form of land, structures, and financial assets. Rich European-Americans had little need for community-based social insurance programs because they could fend for themselves using the market, but the poor who lacked family connections or access to markets were at risk. Thus, it is likely that the social safety net was considerably more porous in European-America compared with the smaller, more cohesive societies of the Great Plains.
Plausibly, the net nutritional success of the equestrian Plains tribes in the face of extraordinary epidemic adversity might be attributable in part to their organizational flexibility. Following huge losses through death, survivors usually regrouped quickly with other bands to resume their seasonal rounds (Decker, 1991; Taylor, 1977; Trimble, 1989; Sundstrom, 1997). Though we have not given the matter much study, it is likely that chaos would have followed very large numbers of deaths through epidemics in any town or city of European-Americans. Many survivors would have streamed out of the community and those left behind would have faced enormously disrupted lives as the intricate networks of specialization and interdependencies came unraveled. American society anticipated continuity and gradual replacement of losses through death, and was not built to withstand major demographic shocks.
The difficult adjustments routinely faced by the Plains tribes were eased by having much of their assets in easily portable and eminently tradable forms of capital horses and pemmican (dried buffalo meat). Though European-Americans also had portable and tradable assets (money), much of their wealth was tied-up in non-edible and non-portable land, structures, and equipment. With one third to one half of the population of New York City dying from an epidemic, for instance, who would have been willing to risk their life to bring food into the city from the outside? Under these conditions, what would physical assets in the city have been worth? For what could they have been traded that would have enhanced the chances of survival? Fortunately for European-Americans, they rarely had to test their system of production and distribution against the kinds of demographic disasters faced by Plains tribes.
Of course, this study refers only to Plains Indians. It doesn't address other Indians such as the Quileute Nation of Washington state. I'd like to see the stats on all the Native cultural regions, not just the Plains.
Without the data, I'm guessing other Indians were shorter. Those in the Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest lived more often in permanent villages. They probably intermarried more often with the relatively puny Euro-Americans. And they probably were more exposed to the Euro-Americans' diseases, squalor, and lack of hygiene.
After the reservation system was in place, Indians lost the advantages listed above. Disease, malnutrition, and poverty began to bring down their heights. Except for Plains Indians, I'm guessing the average Indian today is shorter than the average non-Indian.
Below: Photo from "The North American Indian" by Edward S. Curtis, p. 153."