Who will be tomorrow’s giants?

Baby boys born in 1963 have become men measuring an average of 173 centimetres. Almost 5cm taller than their fathers

Who will tomorrow’s giants be?

In the second half of the 1700s, American men were the tallest in the world at 1.73 metres, and remained so until the 1950s when they were overtaken, ironically enough, by the inhabitants of the Netherlands.

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Although in Vincent Van Gogh’s time the average Dutchman did not reach 1.70 metres, today he can look down on the rest of us from a lofty 185 centimetres.


As the first winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Robert W. Fogel, explains, the height of a population is governed by a series of factors including: genes, access to health care, and food. A varied, protein-rich diet can work wonders, especially during pregnancy and in the first few years of life.

This explains why over the last three centuries the world population has grown and become more long-lived compared to previous millennia.

It may seem strange but the Chinese were once a tall people. During the Sung dynasty and the subsequent Ming dynasty, they too reached 1.70 metres. It was only later that they became shorter: it appears that during the Qing dynasty they were 1.65 metres tall, and then during the Chinese Republic 1.60 metres. They began to grow again only in the last 30 years, after the death of Mao at the end of the 1970s. The northern Chinese are notoriously taller than the southern Chinese, probably because they live in colder regions and eat beef and mutton as well as flour, while in the south the main meal is rice and for meat they mostly eat pork. However, the difference between them and their historic rivals, the Japanese, is still a couple of centimetres, because during the Japanese economic boom years of the 1970s and 1980s, the Japanese made a significant jump – upwards. The shortest of the Asian populations are the Indonesians at 1.58 metres, while elsewhere in the world the shortest are the South Americans and the Africans, obviously with the exception of the Tutsis (or Watusis) and the Masai.

Once extremely rare, men taller than 1.80 metres now account for one fifth of the total. As we have seen, the growth in average height in a country also reflects its economic growth. If wealth is distributed more fairly, the result is taller populations. And that’s the reason why in the United States, where the differences between rich and poor are very stark, the centuries-long trend came to an end. According to national service data, Italy also grew during the economic boom years: a baby boy born in the 1960s became on average 5 centimetres taller than his father. Now we have stopped, or rather we have stopped in the North while the South and the islands (especially Sardinia) are continuing to grow, little by little. In a few years and a few centimetres, will Italy be truly unified?


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