August 20, 2012

The height of Europeans and the myth of the North-South cline

I was just reading on the alleged genetics of height among Europeans and the first thing that stroke me was that the whole story totally assumed from the beginning that Northern Europeans are taller than Southern ones.

While there may be a seed of truth to that stereotype, the reality is much more complex. Just some quick work on known average heights for Europeans gives us the following facts:


Hierarchically sorted avg. height of 28 European populations (men):
Red: tallest (180-182 cm)
Magenta: medium (177-179 cm)
Blue: shortest(174-176 cm)


Hierarchically sorted avg. height of 28 European populations (women):
Red: tallest (167-169 cm)
Magenta: medium (164-166 cm)
Blue: shortest(160-163 cm)

Note: the 3-segment division in the men's map was straightforward because the range of national average was of 9 cm, so 3 cm variation for each, right? However, in the case of women the max. difference is of 10 cm instead but, when we exclude Turkey, only 8 cm, so the shortest segment spans some 4 cm of variation but only 2 cm for Europe senso stricto, so I understand that it is a fair and informative segment after all.


There are some clear facts:
  1. The highest population seems to be the Dutch.
  2. The area of greatest height, rather than strictly Northerner seems to be Central European, with only some Northerner tendency.
  3. The area of least overall height seems to be towards Turkey but there is no clear or simple regional structure of this factor generally speaking.
  4. Some Northern European populations (Great Britain, Finland) have very short women. Their men are not that tall either.
  5. Some Southern European populations (notably Spaniards and Greeks, and of course Croats) are not short at all.
  6. French, Swiss and Hungarian men are rather short for their neighbors' standards, what might be related (just a quick hunch) with the dominance of the "Alpinoid" phenotype.
In any case, we can't say too happily that Northern Europeans are taller than Southern ones without at least some qualifications.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Your attitude is spam.

      Tu actitud es de publicidad indeseada y excesiva. Ozpa!

  2. Looks like more sexual dimorphism in Britain and Finland - or in NW and NE Europe.

    However I though the tallest men in Europe - and the world were in the Dinaric Alps, or todays Montenegro and parts of Bosnia and Serbia?

    1. I limited myself to what was available in the Wikipedia source for both genders (for example I recall having ignored Estonia because only data for one gender was available) and I don't recall any data for those three countries you mention.

      In my experience they are rather tall but can't give figures. The closest proxies in this sample are Croats (tall), Bulgarians (short) and Greeks (intermediate men and tall women).

      What you say about sexual dimorphism makes only some sense: remember that the men are not that tall either. There's no single country where the difference between genders spans is too extreme, like "tall" and "short" in their respective "gender leagues": if one gender is "tall", the other is either "tall" or "medium" - same for "short".

    2. Correction: Croat women are average, only men are in the "tall" segment. The pops. that are both men and women in the "tall" segment are: Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Lithuania and Slovenia (not Croatia). In the "short" segment only Turkey and Bulgaria.

  3. Another way of looking at it would be, men in areas high in Y-DNA I are taller than average...

    1. Wasn't France also high in that haplogroup? Women are also tall in that area... don't over-read the size of the dolls, which is extremely exaggerated for contrast, the differences in the end may be just 2cm up and down from expectations.

      In any case, I'm not looking for explanations, just exposing the facts and trying to dispel what is a not-too-correct stereotype.

  4. nice post. perhaps if you upoload some data I could draw nice graphs with the distribution of heigh among europeans. I agree that the title of the original post was totally misleading. It seems to simply reinforce american view of the world rather than increase our knowledge about it. that's one the reasons I stop commenting on blogs by americans. saudações.

    1. If you provide an email, I can send you the spreadsheet I used but it's all from the Wikipedia link in text (I favored "measured" over "reported" when there were two or more sets; if all similar, I averaged them; I excluded states for which only one gender set was available).

  5. Thanks for you answer. I could use that information but this is not going to add much to your own analysis as it only provide point estimates, kind of. It would be good to have information on the variation of heights within each population (or sub-population). Do you know if we can that some sense of the variance, like getting a representative sample from some groups? I have no idea whether this is an easy or difficult task. My email is

    1. I sent you an email (forgot the subject/title!) but I do not know at the moment where to find regionalized data. This is the kind of basic data that healthcare systems everywhere know but it's not a too important data either (normally height does not affect your health, even if it may hold an oblique relation with it).

  6. There is also something that have been overlooked here. The genetics of these countries, specially the Italia and Iberia, are very stable. But I am not sure that that the height is so stable. For example, the people from the Netherlands were not so tall till recently, if I remember correctly. But the genes are suppose to be more stable in these regions. cheers,

    1. by here, I mean the original post, on the other blog.

    2. There's a genetic factor but there's also a nutritional factor. For example, decades ago Galicians were the shortest ones in Spain, it was almost proverbial that Galicians were noticeably short people, but the newest generations are the tallest ones in fact. All thanks to a protein-rich diet (vs. malnutrition in the past).

      This is probably happening all across Southern Europe.

  7. Genetic differences or nutritional differences? The northern Europeans had lousy land, so tended to have a lot of cattle (dairy and meat). Those eating the Mediterranean diet had low cholesterol, but probably not enough protein for the kids to get tall.

    Similar comparisons of short low protein diets vs taller folks from high protein diet could be found in 19th century American soldier vs the Native Americans, or the Kikuyu vs the Masai.

    Just look at Asia, where the average height of the Japanese went up 7 inches after World War II and we here in the Philippines are seeing tall kids.

    1. Almost exactly my thoughts about cholesterol and proteins, Boinky. However socio-economic well being also weights: people in much of Spain for example had very hard youths after the Civil War, what explains that people born in that era are usually much shorter than younger generations.

      Previously also those agricultural regions where the structure of property was not optimal to sustain a family (as may happen in the Basque Country or parts of Catalonia, or in France after the Revolution and related agrarian reform), where farm size was too small for sustenance (Galicia) or so large that most lacked any property (Andalusia), people had nutritional problems since before being born. That almost without doubt affected height and even intelligence most likely.

      "... he average height of the Japanese went up 7 inches"...

      Maybe but Japanese are still notably shorter than even short Europeans, measuring only 171 cm the men and 158 the women on average, clearly indicating that genetic factors are also at play.

  8. I find the average height given for British women quite surprising. I'm 167cm and I remember that when I was at secondary school in the UK, I was in the smaller half of the class (but towards the middle) when we organised ourselves to have our picture taken in height order.

    I wonder what the criteria set for determining who gets included in the averages is set. Obviously it can't include members of the population who aren't fully grown but it shouldn't really include the height of those who are shrunk by age either.

    1. The source for England is:

      Scotland and Wales have different sources, which you can easily find at the Wikipedia link in-text in the article, but are roughly coincident with the English ones.

      According to this: women older than 16 measured 1.619 m on average, those aged 16-24: 1.644 m, and those aged 25-34 1.637 m. The average I used was therefore 163 cm but now that I think of it it should have been 162 cm (not the average of the three measures but the first measure, which is already an average).

      The average size for British women 2010 seems to be 162 cm in England and Wales and 161 cm in Scotland.

      It's possible, I guess that you have grown after that secondary school period you mention or that your district is abnormally tall. If the latter, I can guess you might be from the Eastern or NE regions, which have the greatest Saxon-Scandinavian genetic influence (just a hunch, but I'd pay a beer gladly if I'm wrong).

  9. I grew up in Warwickshire in the English Midlands, an area with a fair amount of Anglian genetic influence but not as much as the eastern part of England.

    I still don't think that the little old ladies should be included because then societies with a big proportion of aged people (like the UK) show artificially low in the statistics.

    1. Then I owe you a beer (or other drink of your choice). :)

      What I mean is that there are a number of factors that could explain your personal observation, such as a mere coincidence or that you have grown a lot since those days. For example I used to be clearly high when I was a kid but when I reached my 14s I just stopped growing and I'm now slightly under average. Other people instead keep growing in height until much more advanced height.

      In the case of England you can choose your fraction of population to measure, as mentioned above, and the difference is just 2 cm (2.5 cm to be precise) but that's mostly because younger women (and not so much "old ladies") seem to be shorter. I guess that this may correlate with your personal experience but I do not have enough data to judge.

      What I cannot do is to apply different criteria for Britain and other places, that would be unscientific.

    2. I'm surprised by the statistics because it doesn't fit my experience. The comparison was with over 90 girls of the same age. I've always been around the average height and also had an average growth rate.

      I do think by including older people that you potentially mess up the comparison that you're making. According to the website Medline Plus (

      People typically lose about 1 cm (0.4 inches) every 10 years after age 40. Height loss is even greater after 70 years old. In total, you may lose 1 to 3 inches in height as you age.

      Therefore societies with a high percentage of the over 70s (like the UK) will appear to be shorter than societies with a much lower percentage of the over 70s (like Australia where I live now). Also because women live several years longer than men, the average difference in height between men and women will be exaggerated. Ideally you'd be able to get an aged 18-40 comparison across all countries.

    3. Did you read the sources or what I wrote above?

      "women older than 16 measured 1.619 m on average, those aged 16-24: 1.644 m, and those aged 25-34 1.637 m."

      I mean... seriously, Amanda.

    4. Maju, I did read your statistics and interpret them as showing a 2.5cm difference in the average height (almost equivalent to the width of your 3cm steps between short, medium and tall) caused by including the over 40s as against the aged 16-24 figure. I don't know why the aged 25-34 group are slightly shorter than the 16-24 age group.

      Anyway I'm not trying to argue with you. I think that your map is interesting but it's set me thinking about why the official stats are so different from my subjective experience. I would say that going back to my subjective experience, I can remember the distinct feeling when I later moved to London that the women around were rather shorter than the place where I grew up so that makes me wonder whether there is a rural / urban observable difference in height in the UK.

    5. It's true that if I would use the young women (16-24 and/or 25-34 segments) England's average would go into the middle segment (at the very bottom of it though). But that should also happen with every other population, would we apply the same criterion, probably displacing the whole scale and getting similar results in the end.

      I will admit that I have not been too cautious with double-checking all the details when I created these graphs but I did not mean either to make the most accurate possible survey of European heights, just a quick easy one.

      I knew in advance that Basque men were years ago slightly taller than English ones on average, so I knew that the myth of Northern European height was not too real, so I found a rather reliable and extensive source of data and made a couple of maps out of it.

      Can you draw a slightly different and still legitimate one? Probably you can. Can you draw a radically different one without cheating? Surely not. There may be details to discuss but not the overall picture.

      And the overall picture is an irregular one and not the common place of a North South cline.

      ... "why the official stats are so different from my subjective experience".

      That's the real question. I can only imagine that the answer may be very local.

      My personal experience with British men, of which I have known quite a number (many come to Bilbao either for short periods or eventually to settle down here), is that they are not tall at all. Germans, Dutch and Danes on the other hand...

      "whether there is a rural / urban observable difference in height in the UK".

      Maybe your district/county/region is taller for some odd reason. No idea. Notice that Wales or Scotland are relatively rural and their average heights are similar to the English ones.

    6. I would have thought that British men and women would be in the average category amongst Europeans for both men and women. I'm certainly aware that there's lots of tall people amongst the Dutch.

      I found this article from ten years ago which gives rather different statistics to yours; The key is that the study referred to in the article would have used the same criteria when selecting and measuring different populations.

      The statistic on your map of Greek women averaging over 167cm tall really surprises me to the point of incredulity, for example. If that's the case they must have especially selected the short ones to come to Australia. I live in a city with a very large Greek population and struggle to think of any taller than average Greek Australian women that I've met although I'm sure that there are some out there.

  10. Northern Europeans are taller, its just that some southerners enflate their heights in self reported statistics. Its the same with penile size. The self reported maps will have some of the southerners equal and others even bigger than the northerners. Actual measurements on the other hand reveal that the gap between Northern and southern penile size is large and that southerners are small more similar to mid east countries in size than the rest of Europeans.

    Map with links to study

    1. What's your evidence? In my experience those figures reported by Wikipedia and based on medical-statistical data are correct. There's no "Northern" standard across the board and English tend to be slightly shorter than Iberians, while Germans tend to be slightly taller.

      Nobody has raised penile size here, though it'd be curious that some of the shorter populations (French, Hungarians) have larger penises (almost like the Galician popular saying, which is surely false anyhow). In any case penile size is much harder to measure than mere height. That's a quite wobbly part of the body whose only structural consistence (other than meat) is based on blood pressure. We are not discussing that part of the anatomy here. Maybe some other day?


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