It is difficult to establish exactly how tall Mexicans were two centuries ago, among other reasons because the number of remains available for studies is few or very fragmented; this is also the case for the pre-Hispanic era, said María Elena Sáenz Faulhaber, from UNAM's Institute of Anthropological Research (IIA).
Mexico is a country of contrasts; before, as today, it has a heterogeneous population. Physical development is an example; since Independence and even before, there are marked differences in the height of the inhabitants of the north and south. In general, northerners have been taller than southerners.
Based on the femur of a leg or the humerus of an arm, the approximate height of an individual can be inferred. So, "depending on the region in question, we will find different body dimensions".
In Mesoamerica, a series of different ethnic groups developed, each with its characteristic genetic load. It is clear that in general, the population of ancient Mexico was shorter in stature than today.
And it was these same indigenous people who made up 70 percent of the population at the end of the Viceroyalty. Thus, at the time of Mexico's Independence in 1821, seven out of every 10 people spoke a native language, according to Federico Navarrete Linares, from the Institute of Historical Research.
In the 16th century, a process of cultural exchanges and redefinition of identities and cultures began that continues to this day. "To call it mestizaje is insufficient; Mesoamerica was already a plural world and with the Conquest, that plurality was strengthened".
From our parents, we inherit a tendency to a certain stature, a growth channel to reach, in the adult stage, a certain height. But it will depend on the environment in which we grow up to reach the maximum or stay at the minimum.
The indigenous population had a different diet than the one we have today. The staple food was corn, but they also consumed beans, squash, seeds, tubers, tomatoes, chili, and tropical fruits, which they complemented with insects, fish, birds, rabbits, hares, and deer.
According to UNICEF, today malnutrition is a problem that affects children and adolescents in Mexico in different ways. On the one hand, malnutrition during childhood has negative impacts on the rest of their lives, such as low height and insufficient development of the immune system.
On the other hand, overweight and obesity favor the onset of diseases such as diabetes, and circulatory, heart or kidney problems, which have serious repercussions that affect the quality of life and life expectancy.
In Mexico, one in eight children under the age of five suffers from chronic malnutrition. This phenomenon occurs mainly in the southern states of Mexico and rural communities more than in urban ones; the most affected are indigenous households.
Two hundred years ago, the problem of obesity did not exist, or at least that is what is indicated by bone remains where neither cardiac nor circulatory diseases are detected. However, today the population is one of the most obese in the world; "we must be very careful, especially with children, because of the health consequences that this condition implies", said the academic.
Based on "very subjective" calculations, the difference in height between the indigenous population of two centuries ago and the current average population is approximately 10 centimeters, although once again it depends on the region. The inhabitants of Yucatan, Oaxaca or Chiapas have always, since ancient times and until today, had the shortest statures in the territory.
The mixed race had to do with the fact that the stature of Mexicans has increased little by little. "We must also take into account that the Spanish were not among the tallest populations in Europe. To this day, it is the northern population of the old continent". The Spanish regions that contributed the most men to the New World during the 16th century were Andalusia, Castile, and Extremadura.
Thus, the mixture of genes and the change in socio-economic and food conditions (hygiene, nutrition, etc.) allowed an increase in height "but not beyond that," said María Elena Sáenz.
The difference between the current population of the north and the south may be eight to 10 centimeters, "the same as that which existed between the pre-Hispanic population and us".
The people of Chihuahua and other border areas are taller because of the sanitary and environmental conditions in which they grow, and also because there is differential miscegenation with the population of the United States.
Although in the best growing conditions children tend to be taller than their parents, "we are not going to grow forever. There is a limit, the inherited limit for each of the different populations," the researcher reiterated.
According to a global study headed by the Imperial College of London (published in The Lancet, November 2020), the nation with the greatest height is the Netherlands, where 19-year-olds have an average height of 1.84 centimeters in the case of males, and 1.70 in the case of females. In Mexico, men of that age measure 1.70 centimeters and women approximately 1.57 centimeters.
In all species, there is a sex difference in height, said the physical anthropologist; in our species, men's measurements, for example, weight and height, are larger, and women tend to be smaller.
The Mexican population has not reached the limit of their height, as happened among the Dutch, for example. In Mexico we still have a long way to go, because the sanitary and nutritional conditions are not optimal for the entire population, Sáenz Faulhaber reiterated.
Many of Mexico's indigenous and rural populations do not have the minimum conditions to survive. For this reason, we must fight for better possibilities of development for all, she affirmed.
More than genetic inheritance
It is certain that beyond the genetic factor, environmental, health, and nutritional conditions are determinants of the height that people reach. History has shown that, for example, in periods of war, disease, or lack of food, the average height can decrease.
The weight-height relationship is important to characterize, at a given moment, when overweight and obesity begin; in this way, it is also determined that a person is healthy because with both health problems other problems begin, said the expert.
To increase the height of our population, in addition to a balanced diet that includes grains, fruits, vegetables, etc., it is necessary to stop eating junk food and drinks, "which we are used to eating and which are so harmful". This measure will also contribute to the primordial fight against obesity in adults and children, concluded María Elena Sáenz Faulhaber.