The Tallest in the World: Native Americans of the Great Plains in the Nineteenth Century
Joseph M. Prince, Richard H. Steckel
NBER Historical Working Paper No. 112
Historians often portray Native Americans as merely unfortunate victims of European disease and aggression, with lives in disarray that followed the arrival of Columbus and other explorers or conquerors. The data we analyze on human stature show, in contrast, that some Native Americans such as the equestrian Plains nomads, were remarkably ingenious and adaptive in the face of exceptional demographic stress. Using anthropometric data originally collected by Franz Boas, we show that the Plains nomads were tallest in the world during the mid-nineteenth century. We link this extraordinary achievement to a rich and varied diet, modest disease loads other than epidemics, a remarkable facility at reorganization following demographic disasters, and egalitarian principles of operation. The analysis provides a useful mirror for understanding the health of Euro-Americans.