Height is one of the thousands of traits we genetically inherit from our parents, from our ancestors. But is it only about genetics? Which are other influence factors regarding height in the human species? Is it more about genetics or other factors, such as nutrition or other environmental factors? At first glance, height statistics, at a global level, look quite impressive. Let’s take a deeper insight and detail a little bit what is the message these statistics carry.
Human height represents the distance from the bottom of our feet to the top of the head for a human individual, and it is a quantitative trait (a characteristic that can be measured in quantity). It is measured, in the metric system, in centimeters, and in the imperial system, in feet and inches. This characteristic serves as an important indicator of health and nutritional quality, two essential welfare aspects.
Homo sapiens is the only human species currently inhabiting this planet nowadays. If we were to offer a brief description of these species’ individuals, it would look like this:
Homo Sapiens, lifespan – 79 years, maximum speed-45Km/h, structure-7 x 1027 atoms, sexes – female and male, sexuate reproduction, omnivorous species, etc.
So, height is one of the main characteristics of a human individual. In our days, the average height for a male is 1.7 meters, and for a female, it is 1.6 meters. Genetics specialists and researchers state that on average, the genetic factors influence the height in the proportion of 60 to 80%, while the rest depends on multiple environmental factors (the main factor being nutrition). There is even a science studying human growth: auxology (or auxanology).
Heritability of human height shows the total height variation proportion that is due to genetic factors. Several ethnic populations exist, and each of these has a unique genetic background and, at the same time, they live in entirely different environments. This means that height’s heritability can vary from one population to another and sometimes even from women to men.
For example, in the Chinese and African populations, we can observe a 65% height heritability rate, according to studies conducted by Miao-Xin Li of Hunan Normal University in China (2004) and D. F. Roberts in 1978 (for the African population). This diversity regarding heritability is mainly due to differences in the genetic backgrounds and environments the populations experience (diet, lifestyle, climate, etc.). Things are clear about heritability between different populations. But what about height heritability within the same population? The answer is very simple: environmental factors. Based on this important indicator, heritability, a child’s adult height can be predicted if parents’ heights are known.
Given the fact that human height varies with environmental factors, let’s take a look at the average height around the world.
Beginning with the mid-19th century (150 years), the average height for populations living in the strongly industrialized countries has increased by up to 10 centimeters. Back in the 18th century, those people in North America who had European ancestors were much taller than the populations in Europe and held the title for “tallest people in the world.” At the same time, the Native American indigenous people were also among the top tallest populations in the world for those times. Surprising changes happened in Europe: in the 19th century, Netherlands’ population was well-known for its short people, but nowadays these populations are among the world’s tallest individuals, with men averaging 6 ft, around 180 cm. In the 18th century, for an English male, the average height was 5 ft 5 in (165 cm), and for the Irish populations, it was around 5 ft 6 in (168 cm). Given those days statistics, the average height for English, Scottish and German soldiers was around 163-165 cm (5 ft 4 in- 5 ft 5 in), while in Irish populations the average height was around 167 cm (5 ft 6 in). From the same source, those days’ statistics, we find out that the average height of convicts and male slaves in North America was 171 cm (5 ft 7 in).
Nowadays, the average height for American men is 5 ft 10 in (177 cm). A difference between black and white race men is believed to exist, but the statistics show us that the height averages for white and black men in North America are within 1 cm of each other (average white man slightly taller, with only 1 cm taller than the black men).
Across central Africa, the average height for men is around 5 ft 6 in – 5 ft 7 in, but there is variation among populations within Africa. There are some populations with extreme height, such as the Nilotic and Dinka peoples, with averages of 182 cm (5 ft 11 in). It is also important to take into consideration the pygmy populations, as these two extreme heights (too tall or too small), strongly influence the African population average height’s value. Regarding black women, the average height for those born in the 80s is a little under 5 ft 4in, while those women born in the 60s are a half inch taller than 5 ft 4 in. And going back another generation, we will find out that women were again taller than nowadays, not with much, with around 1 inch. So we can assume that the black women’s height overall is on a descendant trend, but with a slowly decreasing rate, nothing worrying.
In Europe, the average height landscape looks like this: Northern European populations, such as Germanics and Scandinavians are often very tall, with a little over 6 ft. In the Southern part of Europe, the average height is much smaller. Even if, on average, Europeans are taller, the Africans have more athletic builds and are more muscular. For European women, the average height is 5 ft 6 in.
In Asia, the average height for men is around 162-164 cm, while women have a height average of 152 cm. The tallest Asian population are the South Koreans, with 5 ft 8 in (173.7 cm) average height for men and 5 ft 3 in (161 cm) for women. The shortest population are the Indonesians, with 5 ft 2 in (158 cm) in men and 4 ft 10 in (147 cm) women. In the Tibet area, the Khampas have an out-of-common height for the Asian continent: 180 cm (5ft 11 in).
In our days, the tallest couple is, surprisingly, the Chinese ex-basketball players Ye Li (190.5 cm- 6 ft 3 in) and Yao Ming (228.6 cm-7 ft 6in). They got married in China, Shanghai, in 2007.
Among the tallest populations in the world, the people living in the Dinaric Alps (East Herzegovina and Montenegro) have a height average of 185.6 cm (6 ft 1 in) in males and 170.9 cm (5 ft 7 in) in females. Dutch and Latvian populations follow with an average height of 183 cm (6ft) in Dutchmen, and 170 cm (5ft 7in) in Latvian women.
The tallest living person is Sultan Kösen, from Turkey, with 251 cm (8 ft 3 in) and the tallest person ever was Robert Wadlow, with an impressive height of 272 cm (8 ft 11 in). He lived in the United States, Illinois (was named “The Giant of Illinois), between 1918 – 1940. The tallest woman stood 248 cm (8 ft 1 in) at the age of 17 (also the age of her death). Her name was Zeng Jinlian, and she was born in Hunan, China. At the opposite pole, the shortest person in the world was Chandra Bahadur Dangi, from Nepal, with a height of only 54.6 cm (1 ft 9 in).