Why are we Measuring the ANZACs?

Welcome to Measuring the ANZACs. In our introductory post we mentioned that “The international research team began collecting information about New Zealand soldiers to study changes in the height and weight of New Zealanders over time. Height and weight are some of the best information we have to explore the health and material well being of people in the past.”

The science behind using height and weight to study well being is called anthropometrics, and when applied to the past is called “historical anthropometrics” or “anthropometric history”. Scholars who study height and weight in the past are a mix of historians, economists, archaeologists, and anthropologists.Historians and economists are more likely to use written records that describe height and weight for many people, while archaeologists and anthropologists are more likely to use skeletal records. The research team behind Measuring the ANZACs reflects this mix: Kris Inwood and Les Oxley have a background in economics, and Evan Roberts trained as an historian.

The science of anthropometrics is also biological and physiological (the science of human growth and body dimensions is called auxology). Historical anthropometrics relies on the fact that only 80% of the variation in human height is genetic. That is, most of the variation in whether you’re tall or short is because your parents and grandparents were tall or short. Or somewhere in between, as most of us are. The remaining 20% of variation is environmental, and we understand the word environmental to encompass all aspects of the environment in which people grow up: social and economic as well as natural (e.g. climate).

A fascination with how humans grow, and how that varies across different groups is long-standing. For those of you who want to read more a book by James Tanner called A history of the study of human growth is a fascinating read. But the interest in using large samples of records about stature in the past is a fairly recent one, dating to the 1970s. Scholars were interested in two, seemingly disparate, questions: how well off were slaves during American slavery, and what were the living conditions of people in Europe during the Industrial Revolution? Attention to these questions has continued, with much debate about whether the stature of Europeans declined during the Industrial Revolution and whether the heights of American men born in the mid-nineteenth century also declined. These findings are apparent paradoxes, since in other respects, people appeared to be getting better off in the nineteenth century: average incomes were rising.

Anthropometrics recognizes that growth is the culmination of competing forces. When young, growing people are getting enough to eat and meet their basic needs they have energy left over to grow. The phrase “net nutrition” captures the idea that people grow net of other needs for the calories they are taking in. Three factors can affect whether people have enough energy left over to grow

  1. Food consumption
  2. Physical exertion
  3. Disease load

All other things being the same if people eat less (more) food, or do more (less) physical activity, or have more (less) disease they will have less (more) energy for growing. But things are rarely the same, and seeing that people’s heights have changed doesn’t tell us why their heigh changed. Anthropometric history is a powerful scholarly tool for uncovering when in the past there were more or less challenging times to be a growing person. We have to supplement it with other evidence to find out why average stature rose or fell. And it is average stature that matters. Because height varies genetically your height, or my height for that matter, tells us little about whether we were underfed or well fed when we were growing. We need to see how things changed for lots of people to identify the 20% of the variation that is environmental. This, in short, is the science behind why we want to Measure the ANZACs. It can tell us a lot about historical change in New Zealanders well-being and health, and set that in international context.

Our research has already found that New Zealanders were tall by international standards, with adult men standing about 68 inches (173 cm) on average at the end of the nineteenth century. This is important because it confirms that New Zealanders were well off on many dimensions. We also know from our existing research that the indigenous Māori and Pākehā (European settlers and their descendents) stature was nearly the same through the late nineteenth century, and only began to diverge in the twentieth century. This is important because it tells us more about how European settlement affected the Māori population. While Māori population declined the health and well-being of living Māori, at least as reflected in stature was not affected until the twentieth century. In the early twentieth century Māori stature fell behind both absolutely (average stature fell slightly) and relatively (Pākehā stature rose, on average). But in the second half of the twentieth century Māori caught up again with Pākehā. Stature isn’t everything, and other things (income, life expectancy) tell us Māori were not as well off as Pakeha. But stature is something — it tells us that children were in some important ways equally well fed.

Research like ours starts with one question, answers it, and opens others. Our research has answered some basic questions about the level and changes of height and weight in New Zealand. But it has thrown up many questions about how men’s health changed over time. How did health in early life affect how long people lived, and what they did later in life? These questions overlap with our questions about Māori and Pākehā differences where generational changes suggest the importance of long-term influences on health. Answering these questions is why we want to Measure the ANZACs. The stories of these soldiers will help us answer these questions, and they will open up more questions for us and others. We look forward to you joining us in this research.

Evan Roberts

Further reading

Richard Steckel, “The formative period of the new anthropometric history



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