How Economists Are Measuring Body Parts and Rewriting the History of Man

Roundup: Talking About History

From the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 28, 2004):

A glance at the summer issue of "Social Science History": Taking the measure of ourselves

If you think economics has become hopelessly abstract and disconnected from human experience, you may not know that some scholars in the field spend their time measuring dusty, 900-year-old femurs. Dozens of economic historians are engaged in a worldwide study of centuries-old skeletons, searching for evidence of disease, violence, hard labor, and nutritional deficits.

The skeleton project is one facet of the burgeoning field of "anthropometric studies" -- the analysis of height, life expectancy, and caloric consumption, among other gauges, with the goal of illuminating how various climates, political regimes, and economic systems have reshaped the human body.

The summer issue of this journal, published by Duke University Press, is devoted to such work. Among the raw data cited in its pages: the height measurements of female Irish convicts deported to Australia in the early 19th century, the child-mortality rate in Victorian London, and the protein consumption of early-20th-century Americans.

One of the field's central findings is that people's physical well-being is closely associated with economic growth. But that correlation is hardly a clean and linear one. During the first half of the 19th century, a period of industrialization and boom, citizens of the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands were generally shorter than their 18th-century grandparents, suggesting that young children's growth was more frequently stunted by malnutrition and illness.

"This is one of the important insights we've made during the last two decades," says John Komlos, a professor of economics at the University of Munich and one of the journal's two guest editors. "The onset of modern economic growth had an impact on the human organism that we had not known about earlier. Industrialization had hidden costs, even in resource-rich environments."

That decline, which is known within the field as the "antebellum puzzle," has several potential explanations. People were streaming into London, New York, and other cities that had poor sanitation and unreliable supplies of clean water. Urbanization increased dependence on wage income, and fewer people had plots of land on which to grow their own food. And even in rural areas, the steamship and the railroad meant that viruses and other infections could spread extremely rapidly. (One recent study cited in the journal suggests that Union recruits in the Civil War who had been born in counties with canals, navigable rivers, or coastlines were shorter than those who came from more-isolated counties.)

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