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Cultural Factors May Have Made Neolithic Women Shorter Than Men

Through a whole range of techniques, researchers have shown that diet and genetics alone cannot explain differences in height between males and females during this time.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

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A photo of Neolithic cave art depicting a line of human figures standing in different poses along with figures that resemble birds.

Neolithic women in North Central Europe were shorter than men, but this cannot be explained by genetics or diet. So what was going on here? 

Image credit: MilenG/Shutterstock.com

The height differences between Neolithic male and female people in northern Europe may have been influenced by cultural factors. That’s the findings of a new study that suggests genetics and dietary factors are not sufficient to explain the differences in height of these ancient people who lived around 8,000 to 6,000 years ago.

Today, we know that culture and health are linked, but how and when did this happen?

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Height is one indicator of health, and being shorter than expected based on your genetics could suggest adverse environmental and/or dietary issues. Existing research has shown that Neolithic humans did not reach their genetic height potential, but it is unknown how this differed across regions and between the sexes.

To shed light on this, Samantha Cox, from the Department of Genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and an international and interdisciplinary team of colleagues assessed data from 1,535 individuals who lived in the early Neolithic era.

The team used ancient DNA, stable isotope analysis (to assess diet), palaeopathology (to study health status), and skeletal measurements. This was conducted on skeletons from North Central and South Central Europe, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean. The individuals’ sex was classified by chromosomal sex or skeletal morphology.

“By integrating genetic and anthropological data, we are able to begin to understand the contributions of genetics and environment to human variation, allowing us to better interpret the genetic, environmental and cultural landscapes of Neolithic Europe,” the authors wrote.

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The results show that people living in North Central Europe had higher levels of environmental stress, regardless of sex, but that female stature was low despite genetic scores identical to those of male individuals.

They suggest there must have been cultural preferences that supported male recovery from stress. In contrast, in Mediterranean populations, the difference between the sexes was reduced, suggesting there were no such cultural preferences protecting male individuals from environmental stresses.

“We therefore hypothesize that the effects of high environmental stress in the North were modulated by culture,” the authors explain.

Although it is not clear what these cultural factors were exactly, other research has shown specific instances where culture buffers males against environmental factors, which creates vulnerability for females.

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“[T]here is an association between decreased female stature and polygyny in cultures around the globe; female height was more influenced by economic conditions during infancy and early childhood than males in lower-class nineteenth-century Europe; sexual dimorphism ratios in modern Chile decreased after the institution of social and government programs to combat gender inequality; twentieth-century female stature decreased in India during times of environmental stress due to sexually disproportionate investment of scarce resources; and son preference has been shown to decrease the height of female children in Indian families regardless of birth order.”

The researchers suggest that culturally mediated differences led to sex-specific stress responses for Neolithic Central Europe that either directly led to lower female stature or, “more likely, supported catch-up growth preferentially in males.”

Although this study provides valuable insights into the factors that impacted height differences in this period and in this geographic region, there are limits. This relates to the limited amount of available archaeological data.

“In this study we focused on the European Early Neolithic because of its relative genetic, cultural and environmental homogeneity, but, with more data, these methods could be extended to other populations, traits and timescales to further explore the effects of human culture on biological variation,” the authors explained.

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 The study is published in Nature Human Behaviour.


ARTICLE POSTED IN

humansHumanshumansancient ancestors
  • tag
  • human evolution,

  • archaeology,

  • height,

  • Palaeontology,

  • neolithic,

  • early human culture,

  • ancient ancestors

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