Native Village Youth and Education News
February 1, 2009 Issue 194 Volume 3



Standing Tall:  Plains Indians Enjoyed Height, Health Advantage

Written by Jeff Grabmeier
Condensed by Gina Boltz, Director, Native Village Publications

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A new study found that equestrian Indian tribes on America's Plains in the late 1800s were the tallest people in the world. This contradicts the modern image of American Indians as being sickly victims succumbing to European disease. It also suggest that Plains Tribes were surprisingly well-nourished given disease and their lifestyle.


"What these height data show is the ingenuity and adaptability of the equestrian Plains tribes in the face of disease and hardship,"  said Richard Steckel from Ohio State University.  "Plains tribes were widely spread out and very mobile, meaning they didn't live in one area long enough to accumulate the wastes and parasites that could become a threat to public health."


The average adult male Plains Indian stood 172.6 centimeters tall about 5 feet 8 inches.

 The next tallest people in the world were Australian men, who averaged 172 centimeters.

European Americans averaged 171 centimeters tall.

Men in Europe were typically several centimeters shorter.



 Steckel said that American Indians did suffer from devastating epidemics such as smallpox that killed large numbers of tribal people. However, they  minimized the dangers of spreading infections by splitting up the tribe when the illnesses started. They also reorganized their small bands following deaths from epidemics.. He also added that American Indians lived in societies that provided a strong safety net for the disadvantaged in their tribes. This meant  no one went hungry or uncared for.


"The Plains Indians had a remarkable record of nutritional and health success, despite the enormous pressures they were under," Steckel said.  "They developed a healthy lifestyle that the white Americans couldn't match, even with all of their technological advantages."


In contrast,  many whites living in cities - particularly the poor - couldn't afford food for a healthy and complete diet. These large, crowded cities and towns lacked modern sanitary practices meaning they were breeding grounds for disease. In addition, many poor had no safety net during times of need and suffered from a lack of proper nutrition and medical care, Steckel said.


Steckel conducted the study with Joseph Prince from University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Their results were published in a recent issue of The American Economic Review.

 The researchers used data from 1,123 Indians from eight equestrian Plains tribes, including the Cheyenne, Sioux, Blackfeet and Comanche.


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