Are humans taller now than they used to be? Why or why not?
We are now generally shorter, lighter and smaller-boned than our ancestors were 100,000 years ago. The decrease has been gradual but most noticeable in the last 10,000 years.
Height Over Time
For this analysis, we will use European males because better statistics exist for this population, but the general trend is worldwide.
40,000 years ago: European males were around 6 feet tall on average.
10,000 years ago: European males were about 5 feet 4 inches tall on average.
600 years ago: European males were about 5 feet 5 inches tall on average.
Today: European males are about 5 feet 9 inches tall on average.
There are many reasons, including the varying physical demands of lifestyles during different time periods, global climatic change and disease, but one contributing reason in particular highlights the importance of minerals in the human diet - our adoption of agriculture in about 10,000 B.C (about 12,000 years ago).
Scientists use height as a rough yardstick of a population’s health and nutrition. As an individual, your potential height comes from your parents’ genes. But whether you reach that potential has to do with how healthy you are as a child.†
Are you getting the right nutrients? Are you fighting off disease? The average height of a population tells scientists roughly how healthy that population is. The tallest people on Earth today live in the Netherlands.
A study done at Emory University claims that, in general, populations tended to get shorter as they transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Some bones provided evidence of malnutrition, anemia, and poor dental health.
All of the above are evidence that our farming ancestors were not getting enough minerals - and this makes a lot of sense.
Minerals are inorganic, meaning we cannot synthesize them ourselves. Plants take in minerals from the soil, and we as humans can only get these minerals by eating plants or animals that eat plants.
As hunter gatherers, we had a large variety of plants and animals in our diets, and therefore a wide variety of mineral intake.
Agriculture simplified our diets down to what we can grow and domesticate in certain regional areas.
Minerals are necessary for the body to build strong bones, control fluids inside and outside cells, and turn the food you eat into energy i.e. minerals are required for us to reach our full height potential.
Is the short-farmer effect true?
Adequate levels of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, fluoride, manganese, chromium, selenium, iodine and iron are all required for the body to grow and function.
Here’s where it gets most interesting - the study acknowledges that several studies within the larger group they looked at did not find a short-farmer effect. Those studies found that height stayed the same, or even increased, when populations made the move to agriculture.
Early agricultural societies had eight major crops - emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chickpeas and flax.
This kind of diet may give adequate levels of magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, iron, manganese, potassium and selenium, so it is reasonable to believe that the short-farmer effect could be avoided through diet that is diverse across these key crops.
It comes down to the crust.
But here’s the thing - mineral availability in the Earth’s crust is geographically variable.
For example, thanks to the glacial forming and melting of the Ice Age, iodine has a geographic variability in the Earth’s crust, being far more prominent in coastal regions.
This is all to say, while there are many reasons why humans could have gotten shorter while transferring from a hunter-gatherer diet to a more simplified agricultural diet, this study poses a strong visualization (even if metaphorically) for something we already knew - minerals are important. Minerals are required fuel for many bodily processes - including growth.
Vitamins get all the attention, but minerals are just as key.
10 Key Minerals Your Body Needs to Function
Each one plays a role in hundreds of body functions. It may take just a very small quantity of a particular mineral, but having too much or too little can upset a delicate balance in the body.
Essential metals are needed to activate enzymes in the human body - molecules with many important jobs. Let’s take a look at the most valuable minerals on the planet (to your body, not the economy).