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Woman measuring her height.	Source: kei907/Adobe Stock

Cultural Practices Helped Make Women Shorter than Men in Neolithic Times

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There is an assumption even today that height is determined almost exclusively by genetics. But this is based on a type of genetic determinism that underestimates the role of culture and environment in shaping physical development. A new study just published in the journal Nature Human Behavior shows that the situation was just as complex thousands of years ago as it is in the present, as a team of scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and several cultural heritage institutions in Germany discovered that height differences in Early Neolithic Period Europeans were strongly correlated with environmental and cultural factors unique to those times.

The US and German geneticists and anthropologists involved in this groundbreaking research completed an exhaustive, multilayered analysis of the skeletal remains of 1,535 men and women who lived in Europe between the years 6,000 and 4,000 BC. Their purpose was to compare the heights of individuals living in the North Central, South Central, Balkan and Mediterranean regions of the continent during those times.

Their specific focus was on groups who belonged to the Linearbandkeramik or Linear Pottery Culture (LBK), which emerged from ancient Germany and flourished in Northern, Central and Southern Europe between 5,500 and 4,500 BC. Despite the geographical differences the people of the LBK culture all lived in a very similar fashion, sharing the same technology and survival methods. Nevertheless, in the different regions there was inevitably some cultural variation, enough to influence the status of men and women and to ensure a certain amount of diversity between each subgroup.

The Science Shows that Culture Matters in Biology, Then and Now

The scientists had access to a significant amount of data to analyze to complete their comparative study. This included information collected from the study of ancient DNA samples, the measurement of chemical isotopes in bones (such measurements will vary based on diet), a determination of paleopathological status (did the individuals suffer from a disease or chronic condition that limited their height?) and skeletal measurements to determine actual height.

“By integrating genetic and anthropological data, we are able to begin to understand the contributions of genetics and environment to human variation, allowing us to better interpret the genetic, environmental and cultural landscapes of Neolithic Europe,” the study authors wrote in their Nature Human Behavior article.

Different regions in the study showed some cultural variation. (Andrei Korzhyts/Adobe Stock)

Different regions in the study showed some cultural variation. (Andrei Korzhyts/Adobe Stock)

Through the combining of all of this data, the scientists could calculate the relative impact of genetic, environmental, cultural and dietary factors on the development of height in each individual. The genetic information made it possible to evaluate potential height, while the other measurements revealed actual height plus the factors that would have contributed to the difference. This data allowed for cross-correlations between people living in the different regions and between men and women as well.

From previous research, it was already known that individuals living in the Early Neolithic Period seldom reached their full height potential. This was enough to show that height was not genetically determined during that time period, and the point of this new study was to find out why.

And what the researchers discovered was truly eye-opening. They found that people from both sexes living in North Central Europe experienced high environmental stress related to lifestyle, but that females weren’t reaching the same height as males despite genetic findings that showed that they should have. The researchers believe this signals some type of cultural preference in which men were given more time to recover from their stress than women, who may have been expected to work longer hours at various tasks.

Cultural Differences Had Huge Effects on Height

Conversely, the differences in height between the sexes in the Mediterranean population were not as great despite the presence of equal amounts of environmental stress. This means that the cultural preferences must have been different, and that men and women must have been given a relatively equal amount of time to rest and recover from the physical demands of the Early Neolithic/LBK lifestyle.

“Our analysis indicates that biological effects of sex-specific inequities can be linked to cultural influences at least as early as 7,000 years ago, and culture, more than environment or genetics, drove height disparities in Early Neolithic Europe,” the US and German scientists declared.

The main purpose of this study was to compare data collected from the North Central and Mediterranean groups in particular. The analysis of the skeletons from the Balkans and South Central regions were used as a control mechanism, or as a way to ensure that the researchers’ methods of analysis would produce similar results if applied to other groups belonging to the same culture and living within the same time frame.

Since their results did show that cultural and environmental factors were helping to determine height in these other groups as well, they knew their methods of analysis were sound and that their conclusions were valid.

A New Method for Analyzing Ancient Culture and Society Has Arrived

The team of scientists involved in this innovative study were thrilled with their results. Through a purely physical analysis of ancient skeletal remains, they were able to track differences in cultural practices that influenced variations in height between men and women in Early Neolithic cultures.

Essentially, what they discovered is that women’s capacity to reach their full height potential was impacted by the amount of time they were given to recover from the physical effects of their stressful lifestyle, which in many instances was apparently not much time at all. The demands of the lifestyle were obviously impactful from an early age, since almost all human growth happens during childhood and adolescence.

The researchers are hopeful that their methodologies can be applied to other cultures and other time periods, to measure the interactive impact of genetics, environment and culture on various forms of physical development.

“In this study we focused on the European Early Neolithic because of its relative genetic, cultural and environmental homogeneity,” they explained. “But, with more data, these methods could be extended to other populations, traits and timescales to further explore the effects of human culture on biological variation. Using this approach, we gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between phenotypic plasticity [environmental impact], culture and genetic architecture, which constrain the mechanisms by which human biology adapts to the environment.”

Their call for more data acknowledges that the importance of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists in the advancement of this type of analysis, since it is their discoveries that will allow these methodologies to be more widely applied.

Top image: Woman measuring her height.         Source: kei907/Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

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Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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