North American Plains Indians: Tall and Robust Meat Eaters, But not a Milk Drinker Among Them

North American Plains Indians: Tall and Robust Meat Eaters, But not a Milk Drinker Among Them

George Catlin, the famous chronicler of American Indians, circa 1832, glowingly used these words to describe the Crow Tribe, “They are really a handsome and well-formed set of men as can be seen in any part of the world. There is a sort of ease and grace added to their dignity of manners, which give them the air of gentlemen at once. I observed the other day, that most of them were over six feet high . . .” “It is but to paint a vast country of green field, where the men are all red – where meat is the staff of life . . .” 1. Catlin went on to state, the Sioux were “tall and straight,” but “none [was] superior in stature, excepting the Osages,” to the northern Cheyenne, there being “scarcely a man in the tribe, full grown, who is less than six feet in height.” Similar observations were made in an 1819-1820 expedition by Major Stephen Long. He stated that the Indians of the Missouri region were “in stature, equal, if not somewhat superior to the ordinary European standard: tall men are numerous 2.

Generally, without supportive data, these kinds of anecdotal, historical statements should be viewed cautiously. Fortunately, a previously unknown and remarkable scientifically sound data set from an earlier era (1892) has surfaced in the past 13-24 years which verifies these observations 3-8. Tables one and two below provide little doubt that in the nineteenth century, adult males from North American Plains Indian tribes were the tallest people in the entire world 5,7,8. A logical question is why?


Table 1. Stature of adult male North American Plains Indians in 1892 5,7,8.


Tribe Height (cm) Standard Deviation Sample Size (n)
Arapaho 174.3 6.9 57
Assiniboine 169.6 6.0 22
Blackfoot 172.0 5.3 58
Cheyenne 176.7 5.6 29
Comanche 168.0 6.4 73
Crow 173.6 6.7 227
Kiowa 170.4 5.7 73
Sioux (Teton) 172.6 5.6 584


Table 2.          Mean stature of adult, male troops born in the mid-nineteenth century 7,8.

Country or Place Height (cm) Country or Place of Origin Height (cm)
Australia 172 Moravia 166
Canada 171 United Kingdom 166
United States 171 France 165
Norway 169 Russia 165
Iceland 168 Germany 164
Scotland 168 Netherlands 164
Sweden 168 Spain 162
Bohemia 167 Italy 161
Lower Austria 167


Maximal adult height in all humans seems to be dependent upon genetic factors, but more importantly upon nutritional factors which maximize the genetic potential for increased stature 8,9. This cohort of adult male North American Plains Indians living in the 19th century is an unusual cohort, to say the least, in that we not only have adult stature data, but we also have nutritional data from this same era in these same tribal groups of people. The Ethnographic Atlas 10,11 provides data for the plant to animal subsistence ratios in the world’s hunter gatherer societies 12, including North American Plains Indians 10-12.

In Table 3 (extracted from the Ethnographic Atlas [10,11] below) you can see that North American Plains Indians ate the majority (76 – 85 %) of their daily calories as animal foods. Bison represented the primary source of food calories for these tribes 5,7,8, and they ate the entire carcass (marrow, brains, eyes, tongue, kidney, liver, heart, blood, gonads, sweetmeats, tripe and just about everything else). Elk, antelope and deer were also hunted and eaten by these Great Plains hunter gatherers and a variety of plant foods were also consumed as they appeared seasonally. But the take home point here for modern day Paleo Dieters is that these people were healthy, strong and tall of stature without dairy foods of any kind in their diet. A point that seems to be missed and not appreciated by some so called “experts” of the contemporary Paleo Diet movement 13,14.


Table 3. Plant to animal subsistence ratios by calorie in North American Plains Indians 10,11


Tribe % Plant Food % Animal Food % Fish Food
Arapaho 16-25% 76-85% 0%
Assiniboine 16-25% 66-75% 6-15%
Blackfoot 16-25% 76-85% 0%
Cheyenne 16-25% 76-85% 0%
Comanche 6-15% 86-100% 0%
Crow 16-25% 76-85% 0%
Kiowa 6-15% 86-100% 0%
Sioux (Teton) 6-15% 86-100% 0%
Mode 16-85% 76-85% 0%
Median 16-25% 76-85% 0%


If any doubt exists about the presence of dairy foods in the diets of North American Plains Indians, think about trying to approach a wild bison or elk, much less milking it. End of argument. Clearly, these people ingested sufficient calcium and all other nutrients from mainly animal foods to build strong bodies, robust skeletons and tall statures.


Nutritional Factors Known to Promote Increased Linear Growth (Stature)

Let’s get back to the question, “How did the Plains Indians of the 19th century become the tallest men in the world without dairy consumption?”

I completely agree with the concept that increased milk consumption during childhood and adolescence promotes greater stature during adulthood. In fact, a recent meta-analysis, “showed that the most likely effect of dairy products supplementation is 0.4 cm per annum additional growth per ca 245 ml of milk daily. . . and that milk might have more effect on growth than other dairy products . . .” 15. The results of this meta-analysis are not surprising or unexpected, as milk consumption is a well-known promoter of increased blood concentrations of the hormone free insulin like growth factor 1 (free IGF-1) 16, a potent growth factor in developing children 17. Although increased stature, particularly in adult males, is generally considered desirable by societal norms, it may be undesirable from a health perspective 17, as increased milk drinking associated with increased blood levels of IGF-1 represents a powerful risk factor for prostate cancer later in life 18,19.

Although milk drinking during childhood and adolescence certainly represents a potent nutritional factor stimulating linear growth and greater stature in adulthood, it is not the most powerful nutritional determinant of final adult height. In general, high quality animal protein is the single most important nutrient consumed during childhood and adolescence which ultimately determines adult stature 9,20,21.

In stunted children, meta analyses of randomized controlled trials of micronutrient supplements have generally demonstrated that only zinc supplements can improve linear growth 22-24. So if you want to maximize the growth potential of your children, without increasing the risk for male prostate cancer later in life, feed them high quality animal protein, which is naturally rich in zinc, and minimize their consumption of milk and dairy products.

Now we can answer the question, “How did the Plains Indians of the 19th century become the tallest men in the world without dairy consumption?” As I have previously alluded, the staple food of North American Plains Indians was the bison and – opposed to modern tastes – they ate virtually the entire carcass. The Ethnographic Atlas data (Table 3 above) shows the Plains Indians consumed high amounts of animal food on average (76-85%). Table 4 below demonstrates that if a man requiring 3000 daily kilocalories (kcal), consumed one pound


Table 4. Nutrient content of bison meat and approximate nutrient content of organs 27.

Bison Tissues  (100 g) samples kcal g pro g CHO g fat Vit A IU Vit C mg Ca mg Fe mg Folate ug Mg mg Zn mg
Bison meat 177 29.5 0 5.7 0 0 7 2.88 18 26 5.01
   marrow 791 6.7 0 84.6 241 n n 4.5 na n n
   storage fat 663 0 0 73.7 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
   eye 326 10.8 0 31.4 400 na 19 4.7 na n n
   thymus 236 12.2 0 20.3 0 34 7 2.1 2 14 2.06
   pancreas 235 15.7 0 18.6 0 13.7 9 2.22 3 18 2.58
   nose 235 20.2 0 17.3 100 0 14 1.9 na n n
   tongue 224 14.9 3.7 16.1 0 3.1 6 3 7 16 2.9
   brains 143 10.9 1.05 10.3 147 10.7 43 2.6 3 13 1.02
   liver 135 20.4 3.9 3.6 16897 1.3 5 4.9 290 18 4
   heart 112 17.7 0.14 3.9 0 2 7 4.3 3 21 1.7
   spleen 105 18.3 0 3 0 45.5 9 44.5 4 22 2.11
   kidney 99 17.4 0.3 3.1 1397 9.4 13 4.6 98 17 1.92
   stomach 96 15 3.6 2.1 n 0.45 240 24 na 39 3.5
   blood 92 21 0 0.5 n n 2.1 62 na 2.1 0.2
   lungs 92 16.2 0 2.5 46 38.5 10 8 11 14 1.61
   tripe 85 12 0 3.7 0 0 69 0.6 5 13 1.42


1lb (454g) meat 803 134 0 26 0 0 32 13 82 118 23
1.5lb (680g) meat 1204 201 0 39 0 0 48 20 122 177 34

of bison meat (26 % of his daily energy expenditure), he would obtain 134 grams of high quality animal protein and 23 mg of zinc which exceeds the DRI for zinc by 8 mg. If he were to eat one and a half pounds of bison meat (40.1 % of his daily energy requirements) he would achieve a whopping 201 grams of protein and 34 mg of zinc (more than twice the DRI). Although 201 grams of protein seems ridiculously high, it still does not exceed the physiological protein ceiling of 205 to 283 grams for a 72.5 kg man 12.

O.K. in this hypothetical example, our North American Plains Indian has now consumed somewhere between 26 % to 40 % of his daily calories as high protein bison meat. He still must obtain 60 to 74 % of his daily energy from either fat, fatty organs or high carbohydrate plant foods – otherwise he will exceed his physiological protein ceiling 12. Table 4 above reveals a perfect solution: eat the balance of his calories as marrow or storage fat. This was exactly the solution Plains Indians used to get around the “protein ceiling” – they made a mixture of dried, pounded and pulverized meat often mixed with wild berries, cherries, or plums called pemmican to which hot liquid bison marrow or storage fat was added. These ingredients were laid down in layers in tightly wrapped and sealed hide bags called parfleches about the size of pillowcases and weighing about 90 pounds.

Alternatively, wild plant foods were harvested seasonally by women and children and frequently dried and stored for the winter months when they were unavailable. The Plains Tribes made use of more than 150 edible species of plants 25,26 that supplied carbohydrates and needed micronutrients generally missing in animal foods, such as vitamin C, vitamin A precursors and folate. Table 5 below lists some of the nutritional characteristics of commonly gathered wild plant foods of the Great Plains Indian Tribes.


Table 5.          Nutritional characteristics of commonly consumed Great Plains wild plant foods 27.

Common Name Scientific name (100 g) kcal g pro g CHO g fat Vit A IU Vit C mg Ca mg Fe mg Folate ug Mg mg Zn mg
Hazel nut Corylus americana 628 15 16.7 60.8 20 6.3 114 4.7 113 163 2.45
Sunflower seeds Helianthus annuus 584 20.8 20.0 51.5 50 1.4 78 5.25 227 325 5
Wild rose hips Rosa arkansana 162 1.6 38.2 0.3 4345 426 169 1.06 3 69 0.25
Chokecherry Prunus virginiana 156 2.9 33.9 1.0 43 0.7 40 0.4 10 21 0.19
Prairie turnip Psoralea esculenta 129 1.6 38.2 0.3 na 2 103 0.95 na 49 0.28
Wild plums Prunus americana 91 0.4 22.0 0.2 3464 10.3 11 0.17 1 8 0.09
Elder berries Sambucus canadensis 73 0.7 18.4 0.5 600 36 38 1.6 6 5 0.11
Jerusalem artichoke Helianthus tuberosum 73 2.0 17.4 0.01 20 4 14 3.4 13 17 0.12
Wild red raspberry Rubus strigosus 62 1.1 13.9 0.3 50 26.4 36 0.64 5 26 0.47
Buffalo currant Ribes odoratum 56 1.4 13.8 0.2 42 41 33 1 8 13 0.23
Gooseberries Ribes setosum 44 0.9 10.2 0.6 290 27.7 25 0.31 5 10 0.12
Lamb’s quarters Chenopodium berlandieri 43 4.2 7.3 0.8 11600 80 309 1.2 30 34 0.44
Prickly pear (fig) Opuntia polyacantha 41 0.7 9.6 0.5 43 14 56 0.3 6 85 0.12
Wild onions Allium canadense 32 1.8 7.3 0.2 50 18.8 72 1.48 64 20 0.39
Wild strawberry Fragaria virginiana 32 0.7 7.7 0.3 12 58.8 16 0.41 24 13 0.14
Cattail leaf shoots Typha latifolia 25 1.2 5.1 0 11 0.7 54 0.91 3 63 0.24
Prickly pear leaves Opuntia polyacantha 16 1.3 3.3 0.1 415 9.3 164 0.59 3 52 0.25
Mean 132.2 3.4 16.6 6.9 1315.9 44.9 78.4 1.43 32.6 57.2 0.64
SD 183.7 5.6 11.0 18.6 3037.1 100.7 76.7 1.53 59.7 79.5 1.25
DRI 5000 60 1000 18 400 400 15


Both tables 4 and 5 make an important point, North American Great Plains Indians grew to be the tallest men in the entire world without dairy products or cereal grains. Kindscher 25 notes that, “most grass seeds are quite small, enclosed in a tough hull, and there is very little archaeological or ethnographic evidence for the use of grass seeds, so they probably were not major sources of food”. The North American Plains Indians achieved robust, healthy bodies primarily from the wild animal and plant foods that could be hunted and gathered from their native environment and without consuming either dairy products or grains.


[1] Catlin G. Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and conditions of North American Indians. New York, Cover Publications.

[2] Edwin James. Account of an expedition from Pittsburg to the Rocky Mountains, performed in the years 1819 and ’20 Vols. I, 282-283, II, 179. Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and L. Lea, 1823.

[3] Jantz RL, Hunt DR, Falsetti AB, Key PJ. Variation among North Amerindians: Analysis of Boas’s anthropometric data. Hum Biol 1992; 64: 435-461.

[4] Jantz RL. Franz Boas and native American biological variability. Hum Biol 1995;67:345-353.

[5] Prince JM. Intersection of economics, history, and human biology: Secular trends in stature in nineteenth-century native North Americans and Siberians: Analysis of Boas’s data. Hum Biol 1995;67: 387-406.

[6] Westcott DJ, Jantz RL. Anthropometric Variation among the Sioux and the Assiniboine. Hum Biol 1999;71: 847-858.

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About Loren Cordain, PhD, Professor Emeritus

Loren Cordain, PhD, Professor EmeritusDr. Loren Cordain is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. His research emphasis over the past 20 years has focused upon the evolutionary and anthropological basis for diet, health and well being in modern humans. Dr. Cordain’s scientific publications have examined the nutritional characteristics of worldwide hunter-gatherer diets as well as the nutrient composition of wild plant and animal foods consumed by foraging humans. He is the world’s leading expert on Paleolithic diets and has lectured extensively on the Paleolithic nutrition worldwide. Dr. Cordain is the author of six popular bestselling books including The Real Paleo Diet Cookbook, The Paleo Diet, The Paleo Answer, and The Paleo Diet Cookbook, summarizing his research findings.

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“5” Comments

  1. No one here talks about early life nutrition. Presumably, American Indian babies were breastfed or wetnursed, rather than routinely given milk from an ‘untameable’ bison. This would have a major impact on their ultimate adult height, as well as their lifelong health.

  2. There is contrary evidence to show this article is at the least, inaccurate.
    The Tribes of the North American Plains are as different culturally, ethnically and linguistically as Japanese are from Chinese or as Russians are from the Scots. The People of the plains did share some cultural similarities, however, one of which was to not let any part of the buffalo kill go to waste. Why would dairy be any different?
    “If a slain female was giving milk, Comanches would cut into the udder bag and drink the milk mixed with warm blood. One of the greatest delicacies was the warm curdled milk from the stomach of a suckling calf.” Empire of the Summer Moon, S. C. Gwynne.
    To make sweeping generalizations like, “North American Plains Indians… not a milk drinker among them” and “think about approaching a wild bison… and milking it. End of argument.” and “…these people… were without dairy foods of any kind” is misleading at best and, I feel, somewhat obtuse.

  3. Dr. Cordain, I’ve been a bit displaced by this paper where you are one of the authors
    It’s clearly indicated that fermented dairy may be helpful for bone health and from this paper the only evil blamed in milk is galactose…it’s not clear anymore what is your actual perspective, considering the article about kefir posted here a while back. It would be appreciated a clarification, is something changed on your perspective?

  4. Great article, I’ve been beating the drum for a while warning about the touted vegetarian propaganda. They always put the example of asian populations that are supposed to “thrive” on grains and little animal products. If we look at the evidence, and put aside some genetic traits about height, asians are on average much smaller than western populations who rely more on meat and dairy, and their limbs are mostly curved like this (), meaning nutritional deficiencies. Of course, they may appear “healthy” compared to a standard american obese, but let’s compare them for example with the native american shown here, or other tribes of hunter gatherers, and there’s no way that vegetarian asians can meet such fitness level and strenght.

    • In my country there was a striking evidence of curved rickety bones during the second world war where meat was unaffordable for most.

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