Lee A. Craig
Since the late 18th century the long-run trend in economic growth—conventionally measured by real gross domestic product, income, and wages—has been positive in the United States and throughout Europe. However, in the 19th century, many Western countries, including the United States, experienced stagnation and even cyclical downturns in the biological standard of living—as measured by, for example, the expectation of life and adult stature—thus creating the “antebellum puzzle,” so named because the downturn began in the decades before the US Civil War. This puzzle suggests that industrialization and modern economic growth were accompanied by an increase in inequality and a decrease in the consumption of net nutrients.
Long-run height series for several southern European countries stagnate or decline from the early 18th to the mid-19th century. Read jointly with estimates of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and real wages, this evidence indicates that Mediterranean households were forced to work increasing annual hours in an effort to protect an already meager living standard. After the mid-19th century, conditions improved in all countries, but with different timing. Also different was the phasing of anthropometric and economic improvements, reflecting distributional and public health influences on living conditions. Today’s southern Europeans are typically shorter than their northern neighbors, which is only partly explicable in terms of measured health and wealth in the region. New evidence indicates that genetic differences may also play a role.
This chapter documents human development in the very long run on the basis of anthropometric indicators used as a proxy measure of the biological standard of living. The author explores the trend in height of European populations, controlling for aspects of natural, economic, and social change. Findings include that there was a small increase in overall mean height in Europe from the 8th century BCE to the 18th century CE (c. 0.5 cm per millennium on average for the total dataset), with regional and temporal variations, including particular low points during Roman ascendancy (1st century BCE in Mediterranean Europe, 8 cm below the predicted mean) and the Little Ice Age (17th century CE in North-Eastern Europe, 7 cm below the predicted mean). Significant explanatory variables for these trends are the availability of dairy products, the share of the population living in urban areas, and the impact of the Roman Empire.
Scott Alan Carson
Measuring the health of a population during the process of economic development is a principle objective in health economics and economic history, and the body mass index (BMI) plays an important role in such studies. Using data on convicts, the author finds that African American BMIs were historically greater than that of whites by 5%. In addition, the differences between average BMIs and obesity narrowed between the two ethnic groups in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and both are now much more likely to be obese than they were earlier. About 1% of males in the 19th century were obese, whereas between 35% and 40% of their modern counterparts are obese. Whereas greater BMIs were once more common among physically active workers, obesity is now more common for workers in sedentary occupations. Explanations are considered for the documented increases in BMIs and obesity.
Richard H. Steckel
The new anthropometric history, which blends human biology with history and economics in a form understandable to a general audience, began in the mid-1970s with the study of important questions about American slavery, such as the age of slaves at menarche and their first birth, stature attained relative to other contemporary populations, time trends in stature, and the relationship between mortality and physical growth in childhood. This chapter updates the literature based on refinements in the methodology and on substantially more evidence from slave manifests. Important new conclusions concern childbearing at young ages, adequacy of the diet, the profitability of childhood stunting and recovery, and the cognitive and socioeconomic consequences of severe early childhood deprivation.