Today the average height for a male is around 5 ft 10 in (177 cm) and 5 ft 5 in for women (163-164 cm). Race can also affect height with the average for some races being taller and for others a bit shorter. Food intake and disease can also affect height as well as environment.
Humans have not always been these average heights. In paleoanthropology we use fossils to calculate the heights of some of our ancient human ancestors. The femur (thighbone) is the most useful bone for making such determinations as it typically composes about 1/4 of human height and is the longest bone in the human body.
Using femur bones and other bones we have been able to estimate height in some of our ancient ancestors. For instance, Homo heidelbergensis lived around 700-200 kya and we estmate males stood an average of 5 ft 9 in tall with females being slightly shorter standing on average 5 ft 2 in tall.
The “Hobbit” (aka: Homo Floresiensis) lived between 95-17 kya and were much shorter. A female skeleton from this species of ancient human ancestor reveals she stood slightly over 3 ft.
Neanderthals who lived between 200-28 kya had an average height of 5 ft 5 in for males and 5 ft 1 in for females. Most paleoanthropologists believe their short, stocky body type helped them stay warm and survive the harsh ice ages they lived through.
Going back even further H. erectus who lived between 1.89 mya and 143 kya stood between 4.9 ft to 6.1 ft although some estimates place some males of this species well over 6 ft tall. Homo habilis (aka: Handyman or Tool Man) lived between 2.4-1.4 mya and had an average height of between 3.4 ft and 4.5 ft. Australopithecus lived between 3.3 – 2.1 mya and had an average height of 3.9 ft to 4.6 ft. Finally, Ardipithecus who lived about 4.4 mya had an average height of about 3.11 ft.
Turning now to modern humans and more recent times a study by Ohio State University suggested that people living during the Middle Ages (9th to 11th centuries) were actually taller that people living during the early 19th century! During this period average height shrunk from 68.7 inches to 65.7 inches. It is believed that the increased height during the Middle Ages was due to warmer than average temperatures in Europe which extended the growing period for farming by about 4 weeks each year. Thus there were increased food supplies available for human consumption.
Height did not begin to increase again until the 18th and 19th centuries likely due to lower temperatures in Europe between 1300 and 1800 AD. This combined with increased trade and population movement held height down during this period.
During the American Revolutionary War period ceilings were built low or, at least, we today consider them low. Door frames were small by our standards today as well. Even houses built in the 1800s are small compared to our standards today! When we see these mall structures we tend to wonder how these people lived in such small places without suffering from acute claustrophobia! But to people back then these spaces, ceilings, doorways, etc were not small at all but just right!
Humans grew taller after the Revolutionary War and early 1800’s and over the past 150 years the average human height of people living in industrialized nations has increased by about 4 inches (10 cm).
We find the same scenario in Native American ruins. Many are what we consider to be small spaces with low ceilings and small doorways but when we consider these ancient people were smaller then suddenly we realize these spaces were comfortable for them but would not be for us today.
In terms of Native Americans some were taller or shorter than others. People from the Plains Tribes stood an average of 5.8 ft tall. Others were much shorter standing about 4 ft tall or even 3 ft tall on average! These differences are likely the reason some tribes speak of “giants.” To a person 3.5 ft tall a person standing near 6 ft or more would certainly be a “giant.”
When we look at the Maya in Central America the Ladinos who claimed mainly Spanish ancestry were of average height but the Mayans were so short that some anthropologists described them as pygmies or dwarfs because males averaged about 5.2 ft tall while women averaged around 4.5 ft tall. Even today the descendants of the Maya are small.
When looking at ancient sites it’s important that we take all this height business into account. Ancient peoples did not live in confined spaces! To them their spaces were just right for their size and this is what must be remembered even though we today would not find such spaces comfortable or even livable. In short (no pun intended) size matters! And it really matters when looking at ancient sties and ruins. So keep this in mind the next time you trek to some ancient site as it will give you an whole new perspective and understanding of the people who once dwelt therein.
Finally, I want to point out that we have wide variations in height today and that seems to be the case over the course of most human history and prehistory. I have a Hopi friend and he stands 4.5 ft tall. I have a Sioux friend who stands slightly over 7 ft tall. You would think that it would be the other way around as the short stocky physique would do better in the cold climate of the Dakotas while the tall lean physique would do better in the warm arid environment of the Hopi lands but this is not the case at all. Instead the reverse is so!
One of the greatest minds of all time, in my opinion, was Tesla who stood 6.2 ft tall and Einstein who stood 5.9 ft tall. However, I also consider Gandhi to be one of humanity’s greatest minds and he stood 5.4 ft tall. The renowned Stephen Hawkings stands 5.7 ft tall and Napoleon stood 5.6 ft tall which was the average male height for his time.
You may have heard of studies that conclude short people aren’t as successful or as smart as taller people. What you need to know about that is that most of these studies are not so! Call them “junk science” which is nothing new as we’ve always had a bit of junk science in time. Dr Martin Luther King stood 5.7 ft tall and so did Winston Churchill. US President James Madison stood 5.4 ft tall while the famous singer Prince who won 7 Grammy Awards for his music stood 5.2 ft tall. The wealthy businessman Andrew Carnegie stood 5.2 ft tall while Yuri Gagarin who was the first human to enter into outer space stood 5.2 ft tall. The legendary comedian and actor Charlie Chaplin stood 5.5 ft tall while the famous Spanish artist Pablo Picasso stood 5.4 ft tall. Additionally, the famous philosopher Voltaire stood 5.3 ft tall while the famous actor Dustin Hoffman stands 5.6 ft tall. The legendary composer Ludwig van Beethoven stood 5.3 ft tall while the famous leader of the Mongols Genghis Khan stood 5.1 ft tall. Height really has nothing at all to do with success, intelligence, or anything else for that matter!
Finally, if you’ve read anthropologist’s Dr Susan Martinez’s book on Little People (see link below) then you know that the Ihins (Little People) were the first people with souls and intelligence who gave us civilization and a host of other things that we take for granted in society today! She’s accumulated a lot of evidence for her theories which I too tend to hold as being true.
The Lost History of the Little People by Dr Susan Martinez, Anthropologist: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-History-Little-People-Civilizations/dp/159143145X