60-Second Science

Pygmies Trade Height For Fecundity

Past theories for pygmies' short stature ranged from nutrition to advantages in forest condition. But new research suggests that it's a question of early child-bearing during a short lifespan. Karen Hopkin reports.

It’s that time of the year when many of us ponder deep questions, like: What have I done with my life? Where am I going? And, Why are pygmies so small?  Well, you’re on your own with the first two questions. But researchers at the University of Cambridge may be able to help with the third.  They published their conclusions in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 
For years, scientists have theorized about the diminutive stature of pygmies—populations where the men never top five feet. The current theories hold that pygmies have evolved to be short in response to a scarcity of nutrients. Or maybe, get this, because it’s easier to make your way through dense forests if you’re not so tall.  But somehow those theories never quite fit. The Masai in Kenya also face famine, and they’re among the tallest people on the planet. And as for ducking under branches—not all pygmies live in the woods.  What the Cambridge researchers find is that pygmies are pygmies because they live fast and die young.  And adolescent years that are usually spent growing taller are instead used to have babies, usually by the age of 15.  So the research confirms what we always knew: pygmies lead short lives.

—Karen Hopkin

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