In my previous blog on War Before Civilization I used the paintings by a French artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. Although there was some controversy on the authenticity of his depictions of life in Southeastern North America in sixteenth century, I believe that at this point the verdict is that they are a good ethnographic source. In any case, in my previous blog I used Le Moyne’s paintings as illustrations (and for their shock value, I admit). The main argument about the intensity of warfare in Native American societies rests on very solid archaeological data, and doesn’t depend on Le Moyne’s veracity.
Le Moyne was part of an ill-fated French expedition to Florida in 1564–5. The expedition was a disaster, first running afoul of hostile Indians, and eventually being wiped out by fellow Europeans (the Spanish). Le Moyne was lucky to survive and get back to Europe. We are also lucky that he survived because he brought with him a wealth of ethnographic observations.
But as I was looking through Le Moyne’s illustrations, I couldn’t help noting, first subconsciously, and then in a more aware manner, just how tall the Native Americans were compared to the Europeans:
I am a big fan of using anthropometric data to measure people’s well-being. Average population height is a very sensitive indicator of changing standard of living (see for example my blog on this topic).
So this observation immediately reminded me of an article by Richard Steckel and Joseph Prince, Tallest in the World: Native Americans of the Great Plains in the Nineteenth Century. These authors analyzed the data collected in the nineteenth century by the students of the famous German-American anthropologist Franz Boas. Steckel and Prince found that the Plains Indians were astoundingly tall. Here’s their data for the average heights of men:
Some, like the Cheyenne, were as tall as the Americans today. All, with the exception of the Comanche, were as tall as the contemporary white Americans, and most were taller than them. This was not too difficult, because during the second half of the nineteenth century the heights of native-born white Americans were declining. The average height of American males born in 1850 was 171 cm, and 40 years later it fell down to 169 cm.
I am not even speaking of the sixteenth century French. As you can see in the last Le Moyne’s painting, the European leader of the French expedition is a full head shorter than the Indian chief:
One of the founders of anthropometrics, John Komlos, refers to the observation that the Plains Indians were the tallest in the world in the nineteenth century as the “Tall-but-Poor Anomaly.” But there is no anomaly here. It just shows that GDP per capita is a very poor measure of well-being. For example, between 1850 and 1890 GDP per capita, in inflation-adjusted dollars, increased by 130 percent, but the height of Americans fell by 2 cm. It’s not that Americans were becoming shorter as they were becoming richer. It was the top 1 percent who were becoming richer, while the 99 percent were becoming shorter.
So the Indians were nominally poor, but they lived in a way that only rich people can afford today. They exercised (riding them horses was a pretty good exercise!), ate grass-fed bison, supplemented by roots and berries (that’s paleo diet!), breathed fresh air, and drank uncontaminated water.
Today this kind of living is only within the reach of the very wealthy. Such as Mariel Hemingway and her boyfriend, the stuntman and actor Bobby Williams. Here’s Williams on the benefits of eating buffalo meat: “The stronger the animal, it’s going to be energetically better for you,”
OK, I don’t want to overdo how wonderful the life of Plains Indians was. Yes, they ate a healthy Paleo diet, and breathed fresh air. But they were also at a high risk of being killed in one of the innumerable clashes with hostile neighbors. And quite a few were captured and slowly tortured to death.