The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)


Mortality and stature in European antiquity

DANNIELLE L. TOMPKINS1, BRIGITTE HOLT1, CHRISTOPHER RUFF2, MARKKU NISKANEN3, VLADIMIR SLADEK4 and MARGIT BERNER5.

1Dept of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA, 2Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution, Johns Hopkins University, USA, 3Dept of Archaeology, University of Oulu, Finland, 4Dept. of Anthropology and Human Genetics, Charles University, Czech Republic, 5Dept. of Anthropology, Natural History Museum, Vienna

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Although stature is primarily influenced by heredity, external factors such as maternal health during pregnancy, early nutritional intake, illness/disease, and physical labor exert influences on the growing body, overriding genetic potential. Several studies of stature in ancient populations have also shown a relationship between short stature and early death. This study of 2023 skeletons, ranging from 7000 BP to the early 1900s and broadly distributed across Europe, seeks to address whether trends between stature and age at death can be determined. The sample was subdivided into three periods-Moderns (AD 1800-1950), Medievals (AD 500-1500) and Pre-Medievals (5000 BC-AD 350). Analysis of stature among period and by sex shows significant increases in height for males and females Medievals (ANOVA, p<0.001), followed by decreases in Moderns (ANOVA, p<0.001). When examined by age groups (20-39 and 40+), our data does not indicate that shorter individuals were more likely to die younger, with no difference between most age groups and younger Moderns and Pre-Medievals males actually exceeding older ones in height. We also found significant variability across regions, with some areas (England, Scandinavia and Germany) showing age-related decreases in height and the opposite in others (France and Spain). We conclude that, while being short may indeed increase the likelihood of dying younger, this relationship would likely hold true only under specific life conditions. Under normal circumstances, the complexity of factors that determine stature would likely mask broad trends. We suggest that the “short die young” hypothesis should be tested in regionally limited samples.

This study was funded by NSF grant number 1124775 and NSF grant number 0642297

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