Tall people exist in many regions, sometimes influenced by the hybridisation encouraged by some of the great human migrations and movements. There is a set of genes or haplogroup that enables great height, encouraged by suitable nutrition and environment. The old nature and nurture argument still holds.
The presence of this I-M170 haplogroup on the Y chromosome is connected with ancestry from the European Gravettian culture. This group of people from the Upper Paleolithic (Stone Age) originally lived all around Europe and continued for example with artistic products such as the plump Venus figures that are a major part of the earliest known cultures. Now, north-central and northern Europeans and related Germanics in the western Balkans are the main source of this haplogroup, but North America and other regions obviously have smaller remnants of these peoples hand-me-down genes.
Pavel Grasgruber and his colleagues from Masaryk University in Brno and the University of Montenegro collected data in a specific survey in 2015/2016 to investigate the Western Balkan characteristics of 3192 boys and young men in school. Bosnia Herzegovina is in the centre of the Balkans, well known for the terrible conflict some time ago. It has Croat, Bosnian and Serb residents, with unsurprising variation across the nation. However, certain very mountainous regions contain populations with great average height (eg Trebinje with 184.5cm) while Doboj has only 179.7cm. These Dinaric Alps have long been regarded as having individuals of great height, just as the Netherlands and some other areas have been famed. Apparently, the claim is that Montenegrins, Dalmatian and Herzegovinan men join the Dutch as the worlds tallest! The paper is published today by the Open Science journal of the Royal Society as”The mountains of giants: an anthropometric survey of male youths in Bosnia and Herzegovina”
History is our most important guide to origins for these height records. The Austro-Hungarian army luckily maintained their records from 1895, with Bosnians averaging the greatest height at 172.4cm. Remember that nutrition then was probably quite poor for many, and is still a problem in some nations in the area. Education of parents played a role in encouraging height in offspring, especially in the case of the mother, while rural environments were also more favourable. Possibly, the city is more injurious to health than fresh mountain air! Pork protein also seemed to play a role in encouraging Croat height, as Islam forbids its consumption for some Bosnians.
Female height was unfortunately neglected, and as the haplogroup is on the Y chromosome, would be extremely interesting. The authors claim the average value would be 13cm below the male, at 170cm. However, the findings are tremendous news for anthropology. Even the average for the nation at 181.2cm for males is very high, compared to others, though lower than expected. It would be fairer to compare the central and southern mountain areas or Herzegovina only, as migration has had much less effect there, in the impenetrable forests.
As agriculture was introduced into the Balkans about 5000-75000 years ago, the local sub-clade of the haplogroup became established. There the argument rests for now, with no autosomal DNA data yet taken. As the testing could now take place more easily than in previous years, we can look forward to understanding whether genetic or environmental factors have influenced this and other populations. There are possibilities of mineral influences among the limestone mountains and other genetic factors, especially those influencing female height from the autosomes, but we certainly have an ancient community of “giants” just like other myths from many parts of Europe, and resembling the extraordinary heights recorded from the archaeology of the Gravettian culture itself.