Leggi in italiano

Anthropologists from the LABANOF group at the University of Milan working on an archaeological skeleton. Credit: Lucie Biehler-Gomez.

As well as genetics, a person’s stature depends on nutrition, health and socio-economic factors, so the average height of a population is affected by conditions created by the economy, climate, disease burden, social stability, wars, and so typically changes over time.

Researchers at LABANOF, the Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology and Odontology of the University of Milan, found out that the height of Milan’s inhabitants has not changed significantly from the Roman era, through the early and late Middle Ages, into the modern era, and the present. They examined the remains of 549 adults, all from burial sites within Milan’s urban area, and estimated their height from the length of limb bones.

“The skeletons we studied are part of the anthropological collection held by our laboratory”, says Mirko Mattia, a bioarchaeologist at LABANOF, corresponding author of the article1. “We selected about 50 males and 50 females dating back to each era, all from the less wealthy classes of Milanese society, to have a uniform sample from the economic and social point of view”.

This is the first study of this kind to focus on such a confined geographical area and socioeconomic status. “And it is the first study to show no change in stature trend over time in Europe”, says Lucie Biehler-Gomez, paleopathologist at LABANOF and coordinator of the research. Researchers usually observe a U-shaped trend in Europe, with taller individuals (on average) in the Roman era and early medieval times, a significant decrease in the late Middle Ages and the modern era, and a recovery in the 20th century. The latter can be attributed to vaccines, public health measures and economic growth brought by new technologies.

Scientists al LABANOF speculate that the steadiness of the height trend they discovered may be explained by Milan’s richness in water and food resources, its political stability and the protection of its population within walls. “Also, the city took care of the poor through the centuries, providing a good standard of living to its inhabitants”, Biehler-Gomez says.

This investigation is part of wider research project for the reconstruction of the history of Milan, called FAITH (Fighting Against Injustice Through Humanities), which the LABANOF is currently conducting. This project relies on the abundance of specimens within its anthropological collection.“We aim to write down the history of common people in Milan through information from skeletons about lifestyle, violence, socioeconomic and gender inequalities, pathogens and medicines”, says Cristina Cattaneo, director of the laboratory.