Notes From The Frontier
STANDING TALL: 1800s Native Americans Were Tallest in the World
Updated: Feb 17, 2020
Recently discovered data has revealed a surprising fact: Native Americans, especially equestrian Plains tribes, were the tallest people in the world! North American Indians may not have lived rich lives monetarily in the 1800s, but they were far richer than most Europeans and white Americans in terms of healthy lifestyles, exercise and nutrition.That robustness translated into their height.
How do we know this? Modern-day anthropologists Richard Steckel of Ohio State and Joseph Prince of the University of Tennessee discovered some data collected in the late 1800s by the “father of anthropology,” Franz Boas. Boas had studied Native lifestyles and recorded measurements of 1,123 native men in eight equestrian Plains tribes. His findings: all the tribes were taller than white men, and some were substantially taller.
Boas was an early pioneer in anthropology and a prominent opponent of 1800’s ideologies of “scientific racism,” the idea that certain races were superior in intelligence and physicality. He believed, rather, that environmental factors, especially social customs, education, nutrition, clean water and air, exercise, and economic advantages were environmental factors that not only affected cultural outcomes but the physical robustness of humans.
He studied eight equestrian tribes of the Western Plains: the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Crow, Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche. The average height of white men in the U.S. was about 5’6” in the mid-1800s, and European men were slightly shorter. However, Boas found that the height of the average Cheyenne was a whopping 5’10”; the Arapaho about 5’9”; the Crow 5’8-1/2”; Sioux 5’8” and the Blackfeet a fraction under the Sioux; the Kiowa were 5’7” and the Assiniboine a fraction under the Kiowa. The Comanche were the shortest; they had the same average height as white men: 5’6”.
Why were Plains Indians so much taller? Steckel has his theories. Several factors may have contributed to their greater height and weight: they ate a varied diet rich in plants, they were widely spread out, and they actively cared for the disadvantaged members of their societies. "The Plains Indians had a remarkable record of nutritional and health success, despite the enormous pressures they were under," Steckel says. "They developed a healthy lifestyle that the white Americans couldn't match, even with all of their technological advantages."
The Plains Indian lifestyle was extremely healthy: fresh air (not the horrific pollution of Victorian urban areas), clean water, and basically a paleo diet—high in protein, such as buffalo, venison, prairie grouse, and fish, vegetables, especially legumes, berries, nuts and seeds. And they led very active lives: both children and adults got lots of exercise and worked hard to subsist.
Most North American tribes had a diet high in protein, especially red meat, which provided iron, iodine and other vitamins and minerals for greater height, more dense, stronger and bigger bones, teeth durability, muscle mass, stronger immune systems, cognition, etc. Heights of 6’ and over were quite common among Native American males. Europeans and the working poor in America, on the other hand, rarely got red meat and subsisted on starchy vegetables such as potatoes and cabbage, and bread.
Most tribes did a great deal of running, hunting, scouting, foraging, competing in races and games, which fostered tall, lean builds.
What is ironic is that, by the time Boas studied Native tribes, they had already been decimated by disease and subjugated to the horrific conditions of reservation life. But they had still maintained some cultural habits. It is likely that, had Boas studied Native Americans 100 years before, their heights would have been even greater.
In fact, Native parents and tribal elders noticed a drop in height within the first generations born on the reservations due to the poor diets on the reservation that consisted of poor quality beef, pork fat, and mostly carbohydrates like flour and corn meal. Crowded conditions, poor nutrition and the inability of Indians to practice the lifestyles they previously had contributed to devastating epidemics and sickness, as well.
However, there are hundreds of tribes or “nations” of indigenous people in North America. Although they are all distantly related over tens of thousands of years since arriving on the continent, their diet and lifestyles dictated their body height. The Plains Indians were notably taller. But the Inuit, who survived in the brutal glacial conditions of northern Alaska and subsisted on whale blubber, fish, caribou, and bird eggs with nary a vegetable or fruit, averaged 5’4”.
Likewise, anthropologists say that white Americans from the beginning of the 1800s to the late 1800s actually DECREASED in average height by two centimeters. Why? Because urban living and work conditions were so crushing, air and water quality abysmal, and crowded conditions caused epidemics, sickness and malnutrition.
There was a reason that so many white Americans and immigrants yearned for open spaces, fresh air and water, and freedom from poverty and the crowded cities. Although pioneers were often terrified of Native Americans, they also idolized them as living a free life in the open frontier.
The perception of Native Americans as bigger and regal in their person dates back to the very earliest European explorers. When the first Europeans came to North America, they found Native people were much larger and healthier. The Europeans even considered them more attractive and robust.
Drawings of Spanish explorers depicted Native chieftains as towering over the European arrivals and appearing in lavish adornment. And Spanish accounts mention the astonishing height of Indians in the New World. Spanish Conquistadors also noted in their accounts that there was the lack of a starving class among the North and South American Native empires. Not starving during critical stages of development can make a big difference to the size of the average adult. It wasn’t until after initial contact with Europeans that Natives began to suffer horrific imported privations like plague and large-scale starvation.
In 1564, the French explorer Rene de Laudonniere met Athore, son of the Timucuan chief, Saturiwa, when they landed on the shores of Florida. Laudonniere’s drawings depicts Athore as an Amazon compared to the French men. The French were very short in the 1500s. In 1740 the average male recruit for the military, for example, was only 5′ 2″.
Later, the French explorer and Jesuit missionary Francois du Peron, met another Native tribe much farther north in the New World in Quebec. He wrote of the Huron, or Wyandot, Indians in 1639: “They are robust, and all are much taller than the French. Their only covering is beaver skin, which they wear upon their shoulders in a mantle; shoes and leggings in winter, a tobacco pouch behind the back, a pipe in the hand; around their necks and arms bead necklaces and bracelets of porcelain; they also suspend these from their ears, and around their locks of hair. They grease their hair and faces; they also streak their faces with black and red paint.”
The Wyandot-Huron were Iroquoian-speaking indigenous people whose ancestral lands were in southern Ontario in Canada. They later moved to Michigan, Ohio, Kansas, and Oklahoma. They were farmers and the women cultivated corn, squash, beans, and collected nuts, fruit and berries and wild roots and bulbs. The men supplemented their diet with hunting and fishing. They lived in extended family longhouses and had a matriarchal society in which children took the status of their mothers. They were a statuesque and beautiful people whose society thrived and carried on vigorous trade with neighboring tribes.
Tecumseh, the famous Shawnee chieftain who lived from 1768 – 1813 was a giant of a man not only in physical stature but his powers of leadership. He was very tall, much taller than the average white man, and handsome, with a powerful build and a deep voice. He had a forceful personality and was an eloquent orator, as well. He attempted to build a broad confederacy of tribes against white encroachment. His shaman brother, Tenskwatawa, also advocated for native self-sufficiency and cultural independence that was being eroded by dependence on European-Americans. (See previous post, THE GREAT TECUMSEH.)
Lewis and Clark wrote of meeting magnificent tall chieftains. They described the Nez Perce, who saved them from starvation and freezing to death in the Bitterroot Mountains, as a robust and handsome people that were exceptionally tall. The tribe ate a very fulsome diet of salmon, grains, camas bulbs (like onions), berries, nuts,
vegetables, venison, and buffalo they hunted in the summer on the Plains. Later, journals of white soldiers and commanders noted Chief Joseph’s tall stature. He was believed to be 6’ 3” tall and his brother, Ollokot, 6’ 2”. Both were very husky, muscular men and natural athletes.
Chief Touch the Clouds was a Minneconjou Teton Lakota known not only for his huge size, but also for his bravery and skill in battle, physical strength and diplomacy in counsel. The youngest son of Chief Lone Horn, himself 6'8", Touch the Clouds was brother to Spotted Elk, Frog, and Roman Nose. He was believed to be the cousin to Crazy Horse. Born between 1837 and 1839, Touch the Clouds was 6’9” and weighed nearly 300 pounds. Lieutenant Henry R. Lemly, who met Touch the Clouds in 1877, described him as a Minneconjou "of magnificent physique, standing even in his moccasins, and without an ounce of surplus flesh, weighing 280 pounds."
Mangas Colorado was a legendary leader of the Warm Spring Chiricahua Apaches in the early 1800s of the American southwest. His tribe, called the Bendonkohe, was the same Apache tribe of Geronimo. He was extremely tall, believed to be 6’6”, with a powerful body and an enormous head. Edward Wingfield, a New Mexico Indian agent, called him "a noble specimen of the genus homo. He comes up nearer the poetic ideal of a chieftain . . .than any person I have ever seen." He was admired by white and red alike as a war chief and strategist and built a vast lineal society by marrying one daughter to Cochise, one to a Navajo chief and another to a western Apache chief to build alliances.
In part because of the greater height of Native Americans and the towering legends of some Indian chiefs who were depicted as giants, a strange series of hoaxes sprung up throughout the 1800s of ancient indigenous tribes of giants being unearthed across the United States. One recurring theme was that the Biblical giants, the Nephilim, referred to in Genesis 6:4--some claimed Goliath was a Nephilim--actually lived in North America in ancient times. Throughout the entire century, countless newspapers across the nation, from California to New York, claimed giant skeletons were being dug up. Some skeletons were nine feet tall. The tallest claim was 36 feet. Two of the greatest hoaxes were the Cardiff Giant (see previous post on this fascinating scandal) in 1869 and the San Diego Mummy in 1895. Indian mounds across the country were pillaged by grave robbers and circus promoters hoping to unearth the next giant sensation. In a strange twist of history, even the romanticized stature of native Americans became a source of victimization.
In the end, even the vaunted Indian fighter, George Armstrong Custer romanticized Native Americans as mighty warriors and towering centurions. But he saw the bitter irony in their predicament. He admired his formidable red foes and with remorse for what he knew would surely end in the loss of their civilizations roaming free upon the prairie, he wrote privately to his wife, Libbie:
“If I were an Indian, I often think that I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those who adhered to the free open plains, rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation, there to be a recipient of the blessed benefits of civilization, with its vices thrown in without stint or measure.”
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