Highs and lows of an Englishman’s average height over 2000 years | University of Oxford

Highs and lows of an Englishman’s average height over 2000 years

18 April 2017

Researchers have used data on skeletal remains to calculate how the average height of Englishmen rose or fell over 2,000 years of history. Using data from skeletal remains of men aged between 21 and 49 years from a range of archaeological excavations conducted in different parts of England during the last 30 years, they reconstructed a man’s full height from data recording the length of his femur. Biologists and epidemiologists have long recognised that although the main causes of variation in individual height may be genetic, changes in the economic, social and environmental circumstances are reflected in the mean heights of different groups of people at any given time.

Their working paper reveals that Englishmen became taller when Britain was under Roman occupation (200-410 AD), with average height rising from 167 cm to 170 cm (or 5 feet 5 inches). The researchers suggest this rise in average height coincided with the Romans’ improved water supply and sanitation systems and a more varied diet at this time. After the Romans left Britain in 410, heights did not deteriorate immediately but fell from 600 onwards. The paper highlights previous research suggesting that health may have deteriorated when populations moved out of the towns and cities set up by the Romans, abandoning their more hygienic water supplies and waste disposal systems. Plague and pestilence then became common and infectious diseases are known to have increased at this time, with archaeological evidence also suggesting that diets were inadequate.

Average heights of men started to go up again after the Norman Conquest of 1066, says the paper. By the end of the early medieval period, heights had increased to 172 cm, increasing to 173 cm in the 1100s, edging closer to heights achieved at the start of the 20th century. The paper suggests that a warmer climate may have contributed to good general health among the population, noting that records for 901 until 1100s show that England ‘saw the warmest weather of the millennium’. Over this period of 200 years, average heights increased by more than 5 cm, says the working paper.

After 1200, heights started to decline, and archaeological evidence shows that at this time, the rural populations were decreasing, farmland had become degraded and there were shortages of crop seeds. It also notes that other research has suggested temperatures turned colder over the century, with weather becoming far more changeable until the early 1300s. The early 1300s started with the Great Famine (1315-1317) which may have exaggerated the decline in average heights, but the paper says men had started getting shorter several decades before. After the Black Death of 1348-1350, however, average heights grew, with the paper noting that this coincided with a boost in agricultural production. From 1400 to the early 1650, mean height reached 173-174 cm. The early years of the 1600s were ‘unusually healthy’, and the paper notes that the introduction of poor laws may have contributed to better health for poorer sections of society. Heights then fell after 1650, falling to around 169 cm in the late 1600s, a decline that continued until the early 1800s, says the study. It notes that previous research suggests mortality rates had declined with life expectancy for those born between 1650-1750 being 35 years as compared with 40 years in the late 1500s. The nature of work after 1650 had changed with manual labour putting more of a toll on the body. The authors note that during the Industrial Revolution, the demands on workers were much greater than in medieval times. The increasing number of working days coupled with poorer working conditions could be why average height went down even though wages grew after 1650. The decline in heights could also be associated with increasing inequalities in society, suggests the paper.

The study compares the average heights of Englishmen with similar work previously carried out by Richard Steckel of Ohio State University, who created a European health index. Although the European and the English evidence provide a consistent history, the Oxford-led study shows that the English may have escaped the worst of a Little Ice Age, a period of cooling that occurred after the medieval warm period, where the health effects were more marked across continental Europe.

Lead author Dr Gregori Galofré-Vilà, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘We believe our results shed new light on the development of health in England over the very long run. Since the early 19th century, average heights for Englishmen have increased substantially, reaching 175 cm in 1950 and 177cm in 1970, being among the tallest of any population worldwide. Our data shows that average heights in England in the medieval era and between 1400 and 1700 were similar to those of the 20th century. If mean heights are a good measure of well-being, it seems we are now in previously uncharted territory. Within the last 100 years, the average heights of Englishmen have risen more than at any time in recorded history.’

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Notes for Editors:

  • The working paper, ‘Heights across the last 2000 years in England’, is by Dr Gregori Galofré-Vilà from the University of Oxford, Dr Andrew Hinde from the University of Southampton, and Dr Aravinda Guntupalli from the Open University. 
  • This study is based on data of skeletal remains of men aged between 21 and 49 years from a range of archaeological excavations conducted during the last 30 years. Most of the excavations in the sample were carried out in London and were curated by the Museum of London, but further observations were included from excavations at Barton in Lincolnshire, and English Heritage’s Centre for Archaeology in Portsmouth and Winchester Museums. Due to having more male skeletons in the initial collection of collections, the researchers excluded females in the data analysis and only remains from individuals with robust data on the age at death were included. They used a mathematical equation to estimate average full height from the thighbone length from ancient samples. The researchers carried out further calculations reconstructing height from the tibia of men in the sample as a robustness check. 
  • Previously, scholars have carried out research into data on the heights of men in institutional populations such as military recruits or convicts. However, such data are only available from the 18th century onwards with very little known about average heights in populations from earlier periods.
  • The study notes that using skeletal data is fraught with difficulty, and the results should only be considered after recognising this. It relies on the high correlation between stature and the length of the thighbone. The researchers cannot control for the age at which mature height was reached, but adopt the classification made by archaeologists that the age group 18-49 years represents adults who had achieved their mature heights. Beyond gathering information about the place where individuals were buried, the researchers do not have other great detail about the individual or the exact period in which they lived. While there is a wealth of data about skeletal remains found during Roman occupation, and after 900, they accept they had no significant data between 600 and 900 that could be included in the study.