The study of human growth has been a part of anthropology since the founding of the discipline. European anthropology of the early to mid-19th century was basically anatomy and anthropometry, the science of human body measurements (Tanner, 1981). Early practitioners of American anthropology, especially Franz Boas (1892, 1940) are known as much for their studies of human growth as for work in cultural studies, archeology, or linguistics. Boas was especially interested in the changes in body size and shape following migration from Europe to the United States. At the time of those studies, around
1890-1920, most anthropologists and anatomists believed that stature, and other measurable dimensions of the body such as head shape, could be used as "racial" markers.
The word "race" is set in inverted commas here because it refers to the scientifically discredited notion that human beings can be organized into biologically distinct groups based on phenotypes (the physical appearance and behavior of a person). According to this fallacious idea, northern European "races" were tall and had relatively long and narrow heads, while southern European races were shorter and had relatively round skulls. Boas found that, generally, the children of Italian and Jewish European migrants to the United States were significantly taller and heavier than their parents. The children of the migrants even changed the shape of their heads; they grew up to have long narrow heads. In the new environment of the United States, the children of recent southern European migrants grew up to look more like northern Europeans than their own parents.
Boas used the changes in body size and shape to argue that environment and culture are more important than genes in determining the physical appearance of people. In terms of environment, life in the United States afforded better nutrition, both in terms of the quantity and the variety of food. There were also greater opportunities for education and wage-paying labor. These nutritional and socioeconomic gains are now known to correlate with larger body size. In terms of culture, in particular child-rearing practices, there were other changes. In much of Europe infants usually were wrapped up tightly and placed on their backs to sleep, but the American practice at the turn of the century was to place infants in the prone position. In order to be "modern" the European immigrant parents often adopted the American practice. One effect on the infant was a change in skull shape, since pressure applied to the back of the infant's skull produces a rounder head, while pressure applied to the side of the skull produces a longer and narrower head (Walcher, 1905).
The work of Boas and his colleagues shows that an interest in human growth is natural for anthropologists. This is because the way in which a human being grows is the product of an interaction between the biology of our species, the physical environment in which we live, and the social/economic/political environment that every human culture creates. Moreover, all living people share the basic pattern of human growth. That pattern is the outcome of the four million year evolutionary history of the hominids (i.e., living human beings and our fossil ancestors). Thus, human growth and development reflect the biocultural nature and evolutionary history of our species.
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