The Roman City Where People Haven't Grown Taller for 2,000 Years

Despite the rest of the world slowly getting taller on average over the past few thousand years, one Italian city has remained the same height since the Roman Era.

According to a study, published on February 23 in the journal Scientific Reports, both the male and female citizens of Milan have not significantly changed in height over the past 2,000 years. This is unusual, as most other studies of changes in height across generations have found that we are getting taller on average.

"This is one of the rare studies to show no change in stature trend over time in Europe," Mirko Mattia, co-author of the paper and postdoctoral fellow at the Università degli Studi di Milano in Italy, told Newsweek.

measuring changes in height
LABANOF anthropologists working on an archaeological skeleton of the CAL (left) and a stock image of a man measuring his height using a tape measure (right). Researchers have found that people in Milan have not significantly grown in height since Roman times. iStock / Getty Images Plus / Lucie Biehler-Gomez.

"In fact, European studies have observed a U-shaped trend in adult stature, with tall individuals in Roman and Early Medieval times, a negative secular trend in the Late Middle Ages and/or Modern era, and finally a height recovery in the 20th century."

Heights worldwide have increased over the past few centuries: over the last 150 years alone, the average height of people in industrialized nations has increased by around four inches, Scientific American reported. The average young adult is around five percent taller than people who lived 100 years ago, Our World in Data states.

The researchers found that male heights ranged between 152 centimeters (5 feet) to 195.4 centimeters (6 feet 5 inches), with a mean of 168.5 centimeters (5 feet 6 inches), while female heights lay between 143.5 centimeters (4 feet 8 inches) to 177.6 centimeters (5 feet 10 inches), with a mean stature of 157.8 centimeters (5 feet 2 inches). Both of these averages were found not to significantly change over time.

The authors used both historical data sources and ancient skeletons to measure how the average height of Milanese people changed over time.

"Skeletons are testimonies of past lives and they can reveal much about a person's life history. In particular, here, we looked at the evolutionary trend of stature in Milan. For the study, we examined over 500 skeletons (549 exactly), selecting over 50 females and 50 males per historical period: Roman era (1st-5th century A.D.), Early Middle Ages (6th-10th century A.D.), Late Middle Ages (11th-15th century A.D.), Modern era (16th-18th century A.D.) and Contemporary era (19th-21st century A.D.)," Mattia said.

The entire sample came from the same urban context, which were cemeteries in the city of Milan, and from the same mostly lower-class socioeconomic background. This was to limit geographical and social biases. The skeletal remains came from the Anthropological Collection of the LABANOF (Anthropological and Odontological Lab of the State University of Milan), which are displayed in the University Museum of Anthropological, Medical and Forensic Sciences for Human Rights.

"Several factors may explain this difference: first, the geographic and socioeconomic context is homogeneous, based on individuals from a single place (the city of Milan) and with a similar socioeconomic background, limiting the effects of geographic and socioeconomic disparities," Mattia explained.

The authors also suggested that the reasons for Milan's static height across the past 2,000 years may be because of comparatively better living conditions in the city of Milan compared to other areas, with the city being rich in natural and food resources, with walls to provide a defense against potential threats.

"Second, the systematic use of a unique methodology. Third, we propose that the stable trend of stature over time in Milan (for both men and women) may be related to relatively better living conditions in the city of Milan, with respect to other European urban areas."

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