The “anthropometric” approach pursued by Nikola Koepke of Oxford University, which combines biology and archaeology, suggests longer bone length is indicative of improved diet. Koepke’s study, presented at the Economic History Society’s 2010 annual conference, also challenges assumptions about the effect of the industrial revolution. Urbanisation did not improve wellbeing, she argues, at least as measured by height.
Rather, Koepke says, the key factor in determining average height growth over the past 2,500 years has been the increased consumption of milk as a result of the spread of, and improvements in, farming. She found that overall European living conditions improved slightly in the past 2,500 years even in the centuries prior to the industrial revolution.
Her study is based on data compiled from analysing the skeletal remains of more than 18,500 individuals of both genders from all social classes, from 484 European archaeological dig sites. “Higher milk consumption as indicated by cattle share had a positive impact on mean height,” Koepke writes. “Correspondingly, this determinant is the key factor in causing significant European regional differences in mean height.”