During the 1800s the Native Indian tribes of the American Plains stood tall, literally. According to a recent study published in The American Economic Review, they were then the tallest people in the world. Men stood an average 172.6 centimeters (about 5 feet, 8 inches) tall, a hair or two above Australian men (averaging 172 cm), American men of European decent (171 cm) and European men (170 cm or less).

Richard Steckel of the Ohio State University and Joseph Prince of the University of Tennessee made the comparisons based on recently recovered data that Franz Boas collected during the late 1800s. The records included height measurements of 1,123 individual American Indians from eight tribes, among them the Cheyenne, Sioux, Blackfeet and Comanche. "What these height data show," Steckel says, "is the ingenuity and the adaptability of the equestrian Plains tribes in the face of remarkable stress from disease and hardship."

To grow so tall, the tribes must have enjoyed good health, which Steckel credits to several possible factors: they ate a varied diet rich in plants, they were widely spread out, and they actively cared for the disadvantaged members of their societies. "The Plains Indians had a remarkable record of nutritional and health success, despite the enormous pressures they were under," Steckel says. "The developed a healthy lifestyle that the white Americans couldn't match, even with all of their technological advantages."