Standing tall: Plains Indians’ height shows good health

COLUMBUS – Equestrian Indian tribes on the American Plains in the late 1800s were the tallest people in the world, suggesting that they were surprisingly well-nourished, given disease and their lifestyle.

These results contradict the modern image of American Indians as being sickly victims succumbing to European disease, said Richard Steckel, 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.

Nomadic advantage.

“Plains tribes were widely spread out and very mobile, meaning they didn’t live in one area long enough to accumulate the wastes and parasites that could become a threat to public health.”

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.

Used new, ‘old’ data.

Steckel used recently discovered data collected by Franz Boas, one of the founders of American anthropology. Boas collected and analyzed data from several thousand Native Americans during the late 1800s as part of research he was doing for the Columbian Exposition, a fair held in Chicago from May to October 1893.

The researchers used data from 1,123 Indians from eight equestrian Plains tribes, including the Cheyenne, Sioux, Blackfeet and Comanche.

What’s it tell us?

Average height is a good way of measuring health in populations, Steckel said, especially nutritional status, as determined by diet minus claims on the diet made by work and by disease.

This study shows that despite the many technological advantages that the European-American settlers had over the American Indians, the Plains tribes enjoyed better health, at least nutritionally.

“The modern perception that Native Americans were hapless and in poor health probably comes from the era at the turn of the century when Indians were put on reservations,” Steckel said.

“Native Americans often did suffer high rates of tuberculosis and other manifestations of poor health on the reservations, but they weren’t always that way.”

While the reasons for the general good health of the Plains Indians, compared to whites, has not been extensively studied, Steckel said several plausible theories exist. For one, the Plains Indians ate a varied diet that included a variety of native plants, as well as buffalo and other game that typically roamed the Great Plains, Steckel said.

American Indians did suffer from devastating epidemics such as smallpox that killed significant numbers of people, Steckel said. But the tribes took steps to minimize the effects of these epidemics, such as splitting up the tribe when the illnesses started, which helped stop the spread. Also, they were adept at reorganizing their small bands following deaths from epidemics.

Safety net.

Steckel said American Indians also lived in egalitarian societies that provided a strong safety net for the disadvantaged in their tribes, meaning that no one went hungry or uncared for.

In contrast to these advantages that American Indians enjoyed, many whites living in cities – particularly the poor – couldn’t afford food for a healthy and complete diet. These large cities and towns were densely packed and lacked modern sanitary practices, meaning they were breeding grounds for disease.

In addition, many poor had no safety net to help them in times of need and suffered from a lack of proper nutrition and medical care, Steckel said.

“The Plains Indians had a remarkable record of nutritional and health success, despite the enormous pressures they were under,” Steckel said. “They developed a healthy lifestyle that the white Americans couldn’t match, even with all of their technological advantages.”

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