Monday, April 23, 2012

Borderline short! Ha!

I had a recent exchange with a few ladies outside Kitcheners Bar in Braamfontein. In between grooving to Kid Fonque and waiting for Blk Jks to start already, we began comparing heights. Anele believed she was the tallest person in our group. I had to disabuse her of that notion in the time-honoured way. We took off our shoes and stood back to back.

As I thought. I am a good ten centimetres tallers than Anele. But it was Nomfundo's parting shot that really got to me: "Okay, you're taller than Anele. But as far as white boys go, you're borderline short."

Borderline short! I'm 1,76m tall! Shortness does not sit well with the male human. If I'm short, then Usher's short. Then Brad Pitt is short. Flippin' Zac Efron is short!

I mean, I know I'm not tall! My height has never been one of my distinguishing features. But my  shortness has never been either! 

I was gonna clear this up quick-quick. First thing the next morning I was on the multipipe, googling stuff. According to the South African Department of Health survey of 1998, the height of the average South African male is 1,69m. For women, it's 1,59m. So that puts me, and my girl Anele safely in the realm of "quite tall for a South African. Fact is, though, South Africans are a rather short nation.

According to this one table I found, average male heights are greater than ours in most countries in the world. The odd exceptions are to be found in Asia and South America. But we're truly overshadowed by countries like The Netherlands, where men average 1,837m in height. Dutch women come in at 1,667m. Germans are similarly tall, Norwegians too, and Czechs as well, but the region with the tallest people on earth is the Dinaric Alps in the former Yugoslavia. Here men average 1,856m in height. That's 6'1" – on average! Their women (1,71m) are taller than our men!

Other tall populations are the Nilotic people of Sudan and Polynesian populations in Tonga and Samoa. These genetic trends can be attributed to centuries of taller, more muscular warriors  having their pick the breeding-age females, or being favoured with the attentions of the females who were themselves the offspring of older warrior kings.

The chief determinant of human height is genetics, but environmental effects like nutrition and local health care for mothers and children also play a role. The amount that genetics affects height varies according to population groups. Among white people, height has an 80% heritability. In developing countries the heritability is less. In China and West Africa, height heritability is around 65%. In the words of molecular biologist Dr Chao-Qiang Lai in The Scientific American, "When a given environment maximizes the genetic potential of a population for a given trait, this population tends to have a higher heritability for that trait, and vice versa."

So for instance, the Nilotic populations, which in the Fifties were found to be taller, are today relatively less so. Dinka males in the Fifties measured an average of 1,83m in a study by Roberts and Bainbridge  But a study of Sudanese refugees published in 1995 found them to average 1,759m in height. That's the same as me. And according to the ladies of Kitcheners, I'm not even tall!

But I'm a white South African of colonial descent. Interestingly, when my British descendents arrived in SA during the 1800s, the average height of an English man was below 1,68m. A century and a half later, SA white male average heights in the 1998 survey were 1,77m. In the UK they were 1,744m. So, given the same genetic heritage, white people have grown taller in South African than have those who remained in Britain. Probably due to all that braaiing.

And yes. It turns out I am of slightly below average height for my population group. If you want to be picky about it. Borderline short for a whiteboy. A lot of good all that research did me.

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