13. December 2023

Was Human Height in the Neolithic Period Influenced by Cultural Factors? Was Human Height in the Neolithic Period Influenced by Cultural Factors?

Team of international researchers analyzed the remains of over 1,500 individuals who lived roughly 6,000 to 8,000 years ago

Body size differences between females and males in northern Europe during the early Neolithic period (6,000 to 8,000 years ago) may reflect cultural factors in play. The findings of an international research project led by the University of Pennsylvania (USA) suggest that differences in stature during that period cannot be explained solely by genetics and diet. Eva Rosenstock of the University of Bonn is involved in the study, the results of which have now been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. 

Dr. Eva Rosenstock
Dr. Eva Rosenstock - of the Bonn Center for ArchaeoSciences, in the lab. This skeleton dates from the late antiquity period, rather than the Neolithic. © Photo: BoCAS/Uni Bonn
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In our modern world, health and culture are known to be connected—take for example the “diseases of civilization” that typically stem from lifestyle issues. Yet how their mutually influencing relationship has historically developed is unclear. Growth is an indicator of health, thus smaller body size than would be expected based on genetics can be indicative of unfavorable environmental or dietary conditions. Earlier research had found that humans of the Neolithic period did not grow to a stature that was possible based on their genetic makeup. Regional differences in height attained, and corresponding differences between the genders, have remained unilluminated, however.

Samantha Cox and her colleagues analyzed data from 1,535 Neolithic men and women derived from ancient DNA, stable isotopes of nitrogen and carbon (diet indicators), methods of paleopathology (health indicators) and skeletal measurements. The goal in studying these remains, determined to be 6,000 to 8,000 years old, was to identify potential causes for evident differences in stature. The skeletons studied came from four regions within Europe: northern central Europe, southern central Europe, the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Gender was determined by chromosomes or skeletal morphology.

Eva Rosenstock of BoCAS, the (University of) Bonn Center for ArchaeoSciences provided and analyzed some of the data for the study. “The factors that determine body size of people today are subject to debate, just the same as with people who lived long ago. Are genes the primary factor, or diet? Or is it the socio-economic-political-emotional (SEPE) environment? The study aim is to help resolve these questions,” explains archaeologist Rosenstock, who is a member of the “Present Pasts” Transdisciplinary Research Area at the University of Bonn.

The study authors show both sexes were subject to major environmental stressors in northern central Europe. Women are generally slightly smaller in stature than men, but in northern central Europe, women were significantly shorter than would be expected based on genetics. The researchers believe that boys enjoyed cultural preferencing, enabling them to better compensate for environmental stressors to which both sexes were exposed, and thus grow taller than girls. “Better nutrition, receiving more attention in growth phases or other advantages could explain this,” Rosenstock observes, who says that further research into dietary behaviors is necessary. “Also, the impact of early pregnancies on the bodies of adolescent girls remains entirely unclear.”

In Mediterranean populations however, there was less difference between the sexes. The team interprets this as an indication of less culturally driven gender inequality in the region. The researchers believe their findings confirm that cultural and environmental factors contribute to gender-related differences in stature manifesting over time, while conceding that the study is based on limited archaeological data. 

In addition to the University of Pennsylvania, the institutions participating in the study were: Danube Private University Krems-Stein, the Baden-Württemberg State Office for Monument Preservation, the Institute for Archaeological Sciences within the Institute for Prehistory, Early History and Medieval Archeology at the University of Tübingen, and the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Jena and BoCAS, the (University of) Bonn Center for ArchaeoSciences.

Samantha L. Cox, Nicole Nicklisch, Michael Francken, Joachim Wahl, Harald Meller, Wolfgang Haak, Kurt W. Alt, Eva Rosenstock, Iain Mathieson: Socio-cultural practices may have affected sex differences in stature in Early Neolithic Europe, Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-023-01756-w; URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-023-01756-w


Dr. Eva Rosenstock
Bonn Center for ArchaeoSciences
Department of Archaeology and Cultural Anthropology
Phone: +49 228 73-6352
Email: e.rosenstock@uni-bonn.de

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