Dutch men are often regarded as the world’s tallest — at an average 183.8 cm (just over 6 feet tall), that’s no surprise. But a new study indicates that Bosnian people are even taller… except they’re not.

The variability of male height in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Image credits: Pavel Grasgruber / Royal Society.

The new study mapped geographical differences in male stature and some other anthropometric characteristics (such as sitting height and arm span) in the Balkans, finding that people from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) display a large variation in average height. This variability is influenced by a number of factors including genetics and nutrition, but also race and culture.

Bosnia is a multiethnic country, and religion often influences a person’s dietary choices (i.e. Muslims not eating pork and Christians fasting a few times a year). When you consider that over half the population of BiH is Muslim, and the country is one of the poorest in Europe, the variation becomes easier to understand. But the study also identified a less obvious factor which plays a role here.

Firstly, a particular genetic profile in men (called Y haplotype I-M170) is correlated with height. In the Netherlands, some 35% of all people have this gene, which is impressive, but in Herzegovina (the southern part of the country), 70% of men have the gene. This is likely a legacy of the Upper Paleolithic Gravettian culture — a culture of mammoth hunters. Yes, Bosnians and Herzegovinians are descended from ancient mammoth hunters!

“The Gravettian is the most important prehistoric culture of the Upper Paleolithic Europe and is sometimes called ‘the culture of mammoth hunters,’” lead author Pavel Grasgruber of Masaryk University told Seeker. “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.”

By extrapolating existing data, the average height in that part of the country should be 1.90 cm for men — and yet the average Herzegovinian just isn’t that tall. This is where the second factor comes in: nutrition. Protein quality has a lot to do with average height, and people from BiH just don’t eat as much protein as they did during their mammoth hunting days. People from nations who eat more pork, dairy, eggs, and fish tend to be taller, while those who eat more cereal tend to be shorter. Poverty also plays a role, as people from poorer areas of the same country are also generally shorter. Another factor affecting the Bosnia and Herzegovina men could be higher calcium intake. The mountains from BiH contain limestone rocks with a high mineral content, including calcium.

Together, all these point a pretty complicated picture, but the bottom line is that people in Bosnia and Herzegovina have the genes to be the tallest people in the world, but they’re just not eating enough protein to grow. So, can they ever become the tallest? Yes, just “give it 20-30 years,” Grasgruber says.

Journal ReferencePavel Grasgruber, Stevo Popović, Dominik Bokuvka, Ivan Davidović, Sylva Hřebíčková, Pavlína Ingrová, Predrag Potpara, Stipan Prce, Nikola Stračárová — The mountains of giants: an anthropometric survey of male youths in Bosnia and Herzegovina. DOI: 10.1098/rsos.161054


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