Nicki and I were shopping in Trader Joe’s the other night and the woman ahead of us was having an interesting conversation with the cashier. She was buying a whole slew of soy products and the cashier said he just read a news piece about the possible health downsides of soy. The woman (about 5’ tall) said she was from Japan and that soy products had been part of the diet for thousands of years and if there was a problem with soy she would have heard about it by now. I chimed in that 2nd generation Japanese Americans are typically 6-8 inches taller than their parents and this is due mainly to the high phytate content of the traditional Japanese diet which makes things like calcium and magnesium unavailable for growth. Both the cashier and the woman looked at me like I just asked where the Baby Harp Seal Pate was. The woman mumbled something like “yes, that’s right” and wandered out of the store, snazzily packaged soy products in tow. Now I’m not sure why but the exchange reminded me of a paper I read years ago about the average heights of Native Americans and how the Plains Indians were the tallest people on earth at one time. It took a little searching but I found the papers by Steckle and Prince. The full paper can be found at these links:
I pulled two interesting paragraphs from the papers, one paper dealing with the height distribution and the other dealing with resistance to tuberculosis by the Plains Indians. Both papers point to the exceptionally nutrient dense diets and high level of activity and social networking as reasons for the hardiness of these people. Here are those paragraphs:
“The geographic distribution of heights tended to follow an inverted-U shape with respect to latitude. The southern-most tribes, the Comanche and the Kiowa, were relatively short, as were the northern-most tribes, the Assiniboin and the Blackfeet. The Cheyenne of the mid-latitudes were the tallest, and at 176.7 cm or 5 feet 9.6 inches, they were virtually the same average height as well-nourished, late-twentieth century Americans. The Cheyenne were followed in stature by their neighbors the Arapaho (174.3), the Crow (173.6) and the Sioux (172.8). The men in all of the north-central latitude tribes were taller than Euro-Americans of the same era.”
“It was commonly reported by the first soldiers who went west that Indians had fewer ‘diseases and morbid afflictions…than that of civilized men. Rheumatism is rare, and gout appears to be unknown. No cases of phthisis or jaundice fell under our observation.’… A physician who traveled to Colorado in 1860 noted that ‘among all the Indian tribes inhabiting this tableau, tubercular consumption is almost unknown.’[i]”
It is important to note that the normal phenotype for humans is to be tall, healthy and robust. As noted in the first paragraph this phenotypic expression very closely matches nutrient availability. Heights among the Native populations reached a zenith in the middle latitudes where food was plentiful and trade routes well established. Buried in the paper is the observation that heights among Americans and Australians of European descent were greater than those of their old world contemporaries. More wild game and grass fed meat and less refined foods. Obviously a good bit more exercise for most as well.
Regarding the tuberculosis I think it interesting that the natives were either clearing this organism that tends to encyst itself in the lungs thus avoiding the immune system or they were able to push it into a state of dormancy. Clean food, open air and the company of friends and loved ones was a far better medicine both then and now.
[i] Rothman, Living, p. 135.