Land of the giants

ABC have an interesting piece up on how Americans are being eclipsed by the Dutch in the height stakes.

The average Dutch man is six-foot-one, while the average US male is five-foot-ten. The ABC report says America has the shortest population in the industrialised world, but then points out that the average height for a Japanese man is five-foot-seven.

What the story doesn’t make clear is that Americans are shrinking while the Japanese are getting taller.

The above link is worth following if only for the photo: Paul van Sprundel standing next to a life-size model of (five-foot-seven) Vincent van Gogh, who barely comes up to the man’s shoulders.

To illustrate the disparity between the nations, ABC sent a six-foot-three reporter, Jim Sciutto, to Amsterdam. There he was left looking up at the likes of van Sprundel, who is six-eleven (watch Sciutto’s story here).

However, I’m not convinced by some of the facts he cites. The study that Americans are coming up short is reputable: it was researched by teams at the University of Munich and Princeton University.

Sciutto says: “Historians have found height to be about the best single indicator of a nation’s success, reflecting not just wealth but overall health and well-being.”

That’s fine. It’s backed up by quotes from Professor George Maat of Holland’s Leiden University, who has been researching this kind of thing for years.

“Health, nutrition, living conditions, genetics — everything at the end goes down to one thing that represents all of that, and that is stature,” he said. “And I think that is the easiest parameter to use to follow the conditions people are living in.”

Fair enough. And the health link has been mentioned before; I have read of studies showing that the population of northern China is getting taller because of a higher meat content in the region’s diet.

But then Sciutto says: “And so, at the height of the Roman Empire, the Romans were the tallest in the world.”

Um, no. The Romans were smaller than members of various Celtic and Germanic tribes — one study claims they were as much as 4cm shorter. The same study points out that the average height did not increase while the Empire lasted but, paradoxically if going by Sciutto’s claim, did after the Empire’s demise in Western Europe.

Even the Egyptians in their heyday were only a whisper above five feet.

Have I sufficiently sucked the fun out of this story?

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