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Bones and Standard of Living
#1
In the thread on Alaric, I mentioned that my colleagues who study the 4th-5th-6th-7th centuries CE see signs that as Roman rule collapsed, people were better fed with less infections and parasites. My main source for that is listening to what people who know way more about that period and that culture than I do have to say (I work on Mesopotamia in the long sixth century BCE!), but I tracked down two references to get people started. The height people grow to has a very good correlation with how healthy and well fed they were growing up, how respected they felt, and so on, and bones and teeth survive pretty well in the ground, at least in cultures which practice inhumation.

Geoffrey Kron, “Anthropometry, Physical Anthropology, and the Reconstruction of Ancient Health, Nutrition, and Living Standards,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 54, H. 1 (2005), pp. 68-83 {he thinks that small farms and classical civilization could deliver the good life as long as kings and aristocrats didn’t steal too much of it}

Walter Scheidel, “Physical wellbeing in the Roman world,” Version 2.0 September 2010. Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics https://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/sc...091001.pdf “A recent study of 1,021 skeletons from seventy-four sites in central Italy reveals that mean stature in the Roman period was lower than both before (during the Iron Age) and after (in the Middle Ages). In the same vein, an alternative survey of 2,609 skeletons from twenty-six Italian sites ranging from the Roman period to the late Middle Ages shows a strong increase in body height in the late Roman and early medieval periods. An unpublished survey of 1,867 skeletons from sixty-one sites in Britain likewise documents an increase in body height after the end of Roman rule.”

Kron likes classical urban civilization and focusing on specific forms of evidence such as fish-farming and comparisons, Scheidel is more pessimistic and likes trying to estimate GDP and other numbers that economists want to have, so they are a good base to start your research from.

And just for connections to another debate ... on page 166 of Men of Bronze Adam Schwartz argues that Argive shields with a diameter of 80-100 cm were too big for their wearers, based on studies estimating the height of men and women buried in ancient Greece by John Lawrence Angel from 1944 and 1945. But Angel's estimate of an average adult male height of 162 cm is much lower than the estimates of 170-172 cm in current research, and Schwartz does not address these newer studies. Obviously both archaeology and statistics were much less developed in 1945 than today, and people like Roland Warzecha have no problem using an 85-90 cm diameter round shield in an agile way for single combat.
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#2
(06-27-2019, 03:07 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: Walter Scheidel... "mean stature in the Roman period was lower than both before (during the Iron Age) and after (in the Middle Ages)... a strong increase in body height in the late Roman and early medieval periods. An unpublished survey of 1,867 skeletons from sixty-one sites in Britain likewise documents an increase in body height after the end of Roman rule."

Scheidel's quite interesting (even if, as I've said before, bioarchaeology doesn't tend to grab me) - I cited some of his work before in this thread about plagues.

Also in that thread I quoted D.S. Potter's idea that the Roman empire was constantly at the limit of its 'carrying capacity': this overpopulation was caused in part by a decline in infant mortality. When plague increased mortality, quality of life for the survivors increased with it.

We might also consider the wastage of arable lands caused by Roman-era intensive farming, which might have led to the creation of 'agri deserti' in the west (large tracts of arable land in Belgica and northern Gaul appear to have been abandoned to wasteland and scrub forest by the late 2nd century). This in turn would have put even more pressure on a population forced to subsist on dwindling resources. Much of this agriculture was also cash-crop farming, which enriches landowners but reduces the amount and diversity of food 'trickling down' to the lower levels of population (a problem that recurred into the 19th century...)
 
But it's interesting that Scheidel says the situation changed 'in the late Roman... period' (in your quote above), or in 'the fourth century CE when this trend [of declining bodily height] was largely reversed'. Why might this be?

One suggestion might be a change of population - settlement of Germanic, Gothic or Sarmatian people in Italy, either an laeti or as migrants, perhaps? - raising the average height, or just bringing a different sort of diet: more meat and dairy, maybe?

Alternatively, the population might have been thinning out, due to disease, increasing infant mortality or increasing violence (brigandage, invasion?), and the surviving population would therefore have had access to greater resources. I think this is what Scheidel refers to as the 'Malthusian' explanation!
Nathan Ross
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#3
The Malthusians often get into trouble when they argue for no net economic change over thousands of years or difference between societies- many people took a lot of risks to move between say settler and indigenous societies in the eastern woodlands of North America after looking at the way both cultures lived, and life was very different in Lugdunum in 400 BCE and 100 CE (and the idea that women had no control over their fertility makes family historian beat their heads on their desks). On the other hand, it does seem very common that good times lead to population growth which lead to food shortages and epidemics and reverse the previous gains.

I wonder to what extent those baths and aqueducts were just counteracting the health effects of cramming so many people into cities in the first place. Busy trade routes can spread diseases as well as tableware.

And here is another study: W.M. Jongman,etal.,"Health and wealth in the Roman Empire," Econ.Hum.Biol.(2019),https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ehb.2019.01.005 https://delong.typepad.com/rome.pdf I am a bit worried to see the Edict of Maximum Prices cited, I have a bad feeling that its grain prices are say "twice average" and its other prices are say "20% over average" because supply and demand of grain are so unstable. A pottery factory has quite a bit of control over production, a farmer is at the mercy of sun and rain and pests.
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#4
And also, yeah, this trend seems pretty well agreed upon, so I would like to hear some different interpretations.

The idea that the fall of the empire was not a big deal because early medieval people had beautiful poetry and garnetwork sounds a bit like Dr. Pangloss, but so does measuring the success of Roman civilization by lead levels in Greenland ice and only lead levels.
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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