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How the Eating Habits of American Plains Indians Contributed to Their Tall Statures

Blankets and cookware on the ground in front of 3 Native American teepees

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 . . .” 1 Conversely, the average height for adult American men is five feet 9 inches tall.

Catlin goes on to say “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. He continues, 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.

While without supportive data, these kinds of anecdotal, historical statements should be viewed cautiously, 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. Now, the next logical question is why? Can this height be achieved without the consumption of dairy?

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

TribeHeight (cm)Standard DeviationSample Size (n)
Sioux (Teton)172.65.6584
Mean: Height – 172.6 cm, Standard Deviation – 6.2, Sample Size – 1,123

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

Country or PlaceHeight (cm)Country or Place of OriginHeight (cm)
Canada171United Kingdom166
United States171France165
Lower Austria167

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
Sioux (Teton)6-15%86-100%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 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.

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

Bison Tissues (100 g) sampleskcalg prog CHOg fatVit A IUVit C mgCa mgFe mgFolate ugMg mgZn mg
Bison meat17729.505.70072.8818265.01
storage fat6630073.70000000
1lb (454g) meat8031340260032138211823
1.5lb (680g) meat120420103900482012217734

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 NameScientific name (100 g)kcalg prog CHOg fatVit A IUVit C mgCa mgFe mgFolate ugMg mgZn mg
Hazel nutCorylus americana6281516.760.8206.31144.71131632.45
Sunflower seedsHelianthus annuus58420.820.051.5501.4785.252273255
Wild rose hipsRosa arkansana1621.638.20.343454261691.063690.25
ChokecherryPrunus virginiana1562.933.91.0430.7400.410210.19
Prairie turnipPsoralea esculenta1291.638.20.3na21030.95na490.28
Wild plumsPrunus americana910.422.00.2346410.3110.17180.09
Elder berriesSambucus canadensis730.718.40.560036381.6650.11
Jerusalem artichokeHelianthus tuberosum732.017.40.01204143.413170.12
Wild red raspberryRubus strigosus621.113.90.35026.4360.645260.47
Buffalo currantRibes odoratum561.413.80.242413318130.23
GooseberriesRibes setosum440.910.20.629027.7250.315100.12
Lamb’s quartersChenopodium berlandieri434.27.30.811600803091.230340.44
Prickly pear (fig)Opuntia polyacantha410.79.60.54314560.36850.12
Wild onionsAllium canadense321.87.30.25018.8721.4864200.39
Wild strawberryFragaria virginiana320.77.70.31258.8160.4124130.14
Cattail leaf shootsTypha latifolia251.25.10110.7540.913630.24
Prickly pear leavesOpuntia polyacantha161.33.30.14159.31640.593520.25
Mean 132.23.416.66.91315.944.978.41.4332.657.20.64
SD 183.75.611.018.63037.1100.776.71.5359.779.51.25
DRI     50006010001840040015

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.


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[27] Nutritionist Pro Nutritional Software. Axxya Systems. //

Loren Cordain, Ph.D.

As a professor at Colorado State University, Dr. Loren Cordain developed The Paleo Diet® through decades of research and collaboration with fellow scientists around the world.

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