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The Tallest in the World: Native Americans of the Great Plains in the Nineteenth Century


  • Joseph M. Prince
  • Richard H. Steckel


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.

Suggested Citation

  • Joseph M. Prince & Richard H. Steckel, 1998. "The Tallest in the World: Native Americans of the Great Plains in the Nineteenth Century," NBER Historical Working Papers 0112, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberhi:0112
    Note: DAE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Dora Costa & Richard H. Steckel, 1997. "Long-Term Trends in Health, Welfare, and Economic Growth in the United States," NBER Chapters,in: Health and Welfare during Industrialization, pages 47-90 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Richard H. Steckel, 1995. "Percentiles of Modern Height Standards for Use in Historical Research," NBER Historical Working Papers 0075, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Richard H. Steckel, 1982. "Height and Per Capita Income," NBER Working Papers 0880, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Richard H. Steckel & Roderick Floud, 1997. "Health and Welfare during Industrialization," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number stec97-1, April.
    5. repec:ucp:bknber:9780226771564 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Lorena Walsh, 1992. "Consumer Behavior, Diet, and the Standard of Living in Late Colonial and Early Antebellum America, 1770-1840," NBER Chapters,in: American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, pages 217-264 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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