We all wish we were a little taller. It’s a sad fact (for short saps like me) of human psychology that taller people are often afforded greater social standing in most societies. Scientific studies have even found correlations between height and other traits such as high IQ, increased financial potential, and sexual success, although the reasons for these correlations are still undetermined. Some of the world’s tallest populations on average now come from some of the poorest areas of Europe such as the Balkans, implying a genetic rather than socioeconomic or environmental basis for height.

On average, Central Europeans are among the tallest people in the world.

To study why certain European ethnic groups carry genes for tallness, researchers from Masaryk University in the Czech Republic carried out a study of over 3,000 European males to try and trace their genetic history and find an evolutionary basis for their height. It is believed that central European populations are descended from the Gravettian people, a population of Paleolithic Europeans who appeared throughout central Europe and Eurasia between roughly 30,000 BC and 20,000 BC.

The Gravettian people were prolific tool makers.

Based on skeletal remains, Gravettian men appear to have been some of the largest prehistoric men on the face of the Earth at the time, averaging between 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 meters) and 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 meters). Little is known about this prehistoric culture, but the Gravettians are generally referred to as mammoth hunters. This is based on archaeological evidence of stone weapons such as clubs and crude spears which archeologists speculate were used to hunt big game. 

The Venus of Lespugue, a Gravettian statuette believed to show one of the earliest examples of spun thread.

Pavel Grasgruber, who led the study, believes that the high-protein diet of these mammoth hunters led them to realize their genetic potential and create the conditions for genetic selection of tallness:

The Gravettian is the most important prehistoric culture of the Upper Paleolithic Europe and is sometimes called ‘the culture of mammoth hunters.’ I suspect that this big game specialization associated with a surplus of high-quality proteins and low population density created environmental conditions leading to the selection of exceptionally tall males.

It is believed that at the end of the Ice Age the Gravettians settled in the areas which now make up central Europe where this study was conducted. This study builds on other research which has begun to trace the genetic origins of our modern-day traits back to our prehistoric ancestors, including Neanderthals. Next time you feel like blaming your parents for your height, blame your lowly, cave-dwelling, knuckle-dragging, plant-eating caveman ancestors instead.


Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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