Environmental stress rather than genetics influenced height differences in early Neolithic people

Neolithic men in northern Europe may have been taller than women because they were culturally more protected from environmental stress, according to international researchers. The team compared the heights of over 1500 Neolithic people from the Early Neolithic (8,000–6,000 years ago) from four regions of Europe (North Central, South Central, Balkan and Mediterranean). They found that although their genetics should have given them similar heights, females in North Central Europe were statistically shorter than their male counterparts. In Mediterranean populations, the difference between the sexes appears to be reduced. The team suggest that in northern Europe there was a preference for protecting male individuals from the impacts of environmental stress, which was not present in the Mediterranean.

Journal/conference: Nature Human Behaviour

Link to research (DOI): 10.1038/s41562-023-01756-w

Organisation/s: University of Pennsylvania, USA

Funder: This work was supported by a grant from the National Science
Foundation (BCS2123627) to I.M. Metric skeletal data collection from
Stuttgart-Mühlhausen and Schwetzingen was funded by the Deutsche
Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG; German Research Foundation)
(RO 4148/1-1). The investigations of the skeletal collections from
Derenburg, Karsdorf and Halberstadt were supported by DFG grants
(Al 287/7-1 and 7-3 to K.W.A. and Me 3245/1-1 and 1-3 to H.M.). The
content is the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily
represent the official view of the NSF or other funders. The funders
had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to
publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Media release

From: Springer Nature

Archaeology: Height differences linked to culture in Early Neolithic Europe

The difference in height between female and male individuals in northern Europe during the Early Neolithic (8,000–6,000 years before present (bp)) may have been influenced by cultural factors, a paper published in Nature Human Behaviour suggests. The findings indicate that height differences during this period cannot be explained by genetic and dietary factors alone.

Culture and health are linked in the modern world; however, how this relationship evolved is unclear. Height is one indicator of health and being of a shorter height than expected based on genetics may indicate adverse environmental and/or dietary factors. Previous research has suggested that humans in the Neolithic did not reach their genetic height potential, but how this differed between regions and between sexes is unknown.

Using ancient DNA, stable isotope analysis (to indicate diet), palaeopathology (to indicate health status) and skeletal measurements, Samantha Cox and colleagues analysed data from 1,535 Neolithic individuals dated to between 8,000 and 6,000 bp to investigate height differences and possible causes. The skeletons were from four regions of Europe (North Central, South Central, Balkan and Mediterranean), and sex was classified based on chromosomal sex or skeletal morphology. The authors show that in North Central Europe there was high environmental stress across the sexes, but that female stature was low despite genetic scores identical to those of male individuals. They suggest that this may indicate a cultural preference that supported male recovery from stress. In Mediterranean populations, the difference between the sexes is reduced, which suggests that there was not a cultural preference for protecting male individuals from the impacts of environmental stress.

The authors suggest that their results demonstrate the role of cultural and environmental factors in driving sex differences in stature throughout time, but acknowledge that their analyses are limited by availability of archaeological data.

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