November 05, 2003

Notes: Long-Run Living Standards

Something to add to the to-read pile:

Joerg Baten and Nikola Koepke (2003), "The Biological Standard of Living in Europe During the Last Two Millennia" (Tuebingen economics dept. working paper series no. 265).

Abstract: This paper offers the first anthropometric estimates on the biological standard of living in central Europe in the first millennium, and expands the literature on the second millenium. The overall picture is one of stagnant heights. There was not much progress in European nutritional status, not even between 1000 and 1800, when recent GDP per capita estimates arrive at growing figures. We find that heights stagnated during the Roman imperial period in Central, Western and Southern Europe. One astonishing result is the height increase in the fifth and sixth centuries. Noteworthy is the synchronicity of the height development in three large regions of Europe. In a regression analysis of height determinants, population density was clearly economically (but not statistically) significant. Decreasing marginal product theories and Malthusian thought cannot be denied for the pre-1800 period. Of marginal significance were climate (warmer temperatures were good for nutritional status!), social inequality, and gender inequality (both reduce average height).

Posted by DeLong at November 5, 2003 03:50 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Hmm... so it looks like the early dark ages were quite a good time for the common people.

Was this just because population decline reduced population pressure on land, or was it because exploitative social structures that took away a lot of people's production (like the widespread slavery of the Roman empire) had collapsed but new ones hadn't really gotten firmly entrenched yet? Or something else?

Posted by: Julian Elson on November 5, 2003 06:15 PM

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"Hmm... so it looks like the early dark ages were quite a good time for the common people."

Ugh. I read that as greater protein intake.

Where did protein come from in the early Dark Ages? Grazing.

Where did all the grazing land come from? Previous farmland.

Where did the farmers go? They're dead, Jim. The sixth century was bad that way. It's documented.

I am not at all sure that the removal of one-third of Europe's population by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse just so the children of the survivors can be an inch taller represents "quite a good time for the common people".

C.

Posted by: Carlos on November 5, 2003 09:08 PM

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Wow! I'm 6'1" and I'd be the tallest person in this sample. Says a lot about modern nutrition.

One of the more interesting things I've read lately. It's a reminder as to how remarkable the past couple of centuries have been. Let's hope that this continues.

Posted by: Chris on November 5, 2003 09:18 PM

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So, as I speculated: a decrease in population density.

Posted by: Julian Elson on November 5, 2003 09:40 PM

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>>So, as I speculated: a decrease in population density.<<

*And* a likely decrease in organized extortion by thugs-with-spears living in places like Rome and Constantinople.

Of course, there was an increase in sporadic pillage by thugs-with-spears of no fixed address...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on November 5, 2003 09:43 PM

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>>I am not at all sure that the removal of one-third of Europe's population by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse just so the children of the survivors can be an inch taller represents "quite a good time for the common people".<<

Depends whether you are focusing on the Apocalyptees or on the subsequent generation with their bigger farms and rosier cheeks...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on November 5, 2003 09:45 PM

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How much of the increase in height in that time period was due to a bunch of Germans moving in?

Posted by: Barry on November 6, 2003 03:49 AM

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Barry,

I don't know how much the in migration of Germans mattered, but if you read what the Romans had to say about the Celts, you'll note that they were described as large and well formed, and that they ate a lot of meat. There is that connection again. Very likely a population on the move, like the invaders of Rome, had to depend more on meat than on grain for calories, and as Carlos points out, that dietary pattern may have persisted for some time after the German's settled. I'll grant you, even today it is hard to find a European taller than the those around the Dutch/German border.

I once helped build a replica of a fast work boat called a "Whitehall", named after Whitehall Street in New York. The fellow who drew the plans said he took the lines right off of a Revolutionary period boat. The one big change he noted was that he had to make the seats bigger and higher. He figured the average rower in the Revolutionary period had to be about 5' 6", maybe less. I'm of pretty much the same genetic stock as those rowers, but I'm about a head taller than they would have been. Lotta hotdogs when I was a kid.

Posted by: K Harris on November 6, 2003 04:13 AM

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"Depends whether you are focusing on the Apocalyptees or on the subsequent generation with their bigger farms and rosier cheeks..."

Not to get all Calorie Bentham here, but 100 million people at 5'7"/5'3" versus 67 million at 5'8"/5'4" just does not sound like a good trade-off to me.

"*And* a likely decrease in organized extortion by thugs-with-spears living in places like Rome and Constantinople. Of course, there was an increase in sporadic pillage by thugs-with-spears of no fixed address..."

Hm. I don't think you can claim anything about the level of organized extortion from the data. Only how much J. Random Peasant managed to keep. That was more; but JRP had more &/or better quality land available.

Posted by: Carlos on November 6, 2003 06:12 AM

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It ought to be fairly easy to correlate standard-of-living data to average height in genetically identical populations: using modern and reliable data from North and South Korea. I would anticipate that Koreans in the (Westernized?) South are significantly taller than their cousins a few miles farther from the equator.

The brutal abuse of (short) women, children, and dissidents in North Korea presents a strongly compelling case for "regime change" in North Korea -- even absent any of their documented violations of international law, treaty abrogations, and potential development of WMD. Don't you think?

Posted by: Pouncer on November 6, 2003 06:19 AM

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There are indeed studies which link economic well-being to average height of the current population, for example by Komlos, professor of economic history at the University of Munich. Just last week, the Germany weekly "Die Zeit" had an article on his studies, available in German at

http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2003/45/M-Auxologie

The study suggested by Pouncer has been done on Germans (East vs. West), and while there was still a significant difference in 1989, by now East Germans have caught up to their Western compatriots.

The bad news: Americans are shrinking...

Posted by: Raven on November 6, 2003 06:55 AM

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Its going to their waists.

Posted by: big al on November 6, 2003 07:37 AM

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I would guess that the increase in heights was at least partially caused by the onset of the medieval optimum - a period of warm climate that started around the fourth or fifth centuries and peaked in the thirteenth century. Warmer, wetter climate = better crops = bigger people. The good news is that our climate today is approaching tempuratures seen during the medieval optimum. (see, for instance, the recent paper by McIntyre and McKitrick)

Posted by: Jason Johnson on November 6, 2003 07:54 AM

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I have read that as of ~1970 the average Japanese was a foot taller than his grandfather. Hard to believe, but it was a reputable source (honest! I promise!) When I was in Taiwan in 1983, I was average height for anyone over the age of ~30, but short compared to younger people, including many of the teenage girls. (I'm 5'6").

There's a theory that meat-eating in the civilized world was a prerogative of the ruling military caste -- can be documented both in medieval Europe and in ancient China. They may not have been tall by our standards, but taller than their subjects.

Several of the invading groups (Germans, Mongols, Turks) were pastoral or semi-pastoral peoples who probably got more animal protein than the civilized peasantry.

In terms of modern nutrition, meat-eating isn't necessary to develop height or strength. The reason the non-meat-eaters were small and weak was that they didn't get enough vegetable protein either; meat-eating was a sign that someone was getting enough to eat.

Posted by: Zizka on November 6, 2003 08:06 AM

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"Depends whether you are focusing on the Apocalyptees or on the subsequent generation..."

The Black Death some centuries later increased suriving workers' wages and legal rights.

Every Apocalypse has a silver lining.

Posted by: Jim Glass on November 6, 2003 09:51 AM

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