Hadza and height preference

Amongst the Hadza of Tanzania height doesn’t appear to be a factor in choosing a partner (How universal are human mate choices? Size doesn’t matter when Hadza foragers are choosing a mate, 2009). For example, the graph below shows the percentage of marriages one would expect to find in which the woman is taller than the man, if mating were random, vs. what you actually find. As you can see, the Hadza (and Gambians) have the rates of taller wives-shorter husbands one would expect if it were not an important factor, whereas in the UK, that pairing is significantly smaller than expected.

A 2012 paper on the Baka Pygmy (Short stature in African pygmies is not explained by sexual selection), however, includes as a comparison the neighbouring non-Pygmy Nzimé and find that in both populations, the rate of female-taller pairs is less than one would expect by random pairings – but not nearly so much less as in western samples:

Observed (white bar) vs. Expected (striped bar) female-taller pairings among several populations.

Observed (white bar) vs. Expected (striped bar) female-taller pairings among several populations.

As for preferences, the authors write:

When asked about the importance of stature in the Baka society, men and women stand together on a very egalitarian discourse: “tall or short, this makes no difference.” When asked their personal preferences, 21 out of 29 of our male informants openly declared that they would not marry a woman taller than themselves. Women were less definitive on the question: they never said that tall stature is a standard of desirability in men, and only 10 out of 38 female informants said that “a woman should not be taller than her husband.” Interestingly, all the informants mentioned that Baka men propose a love relationship to women, never the reverse, which may be an explanation for different opinions expressed by men and women. If men mate choice is highly constrained by gendered representations, as we recorded, then a man would only very rarely propose to a taller woman, and women will thus very rarely be in the position to consider the opportunity of marrying a man shorter than themselves. It is therefore unclear whether, when faced with a choice between several men, a woman would preferentially mate with the tallest.

Another paper (Variable Preferences for Sexual Dimorphism in Stature (SDS) Might Not Be Universal: Data From a Semi-Nomad Population (Himba) in Namibia, 2011) looked at stated preferences without looking looking at actual pairings. The results were shifted away from western preferences. While 50% of the Himba preferred a male-taller coupling, 30% preferred equal-height partners, and 20% preferred female-taller couples.

In Western studies in general the vast majority of people state a preference for a male-taller partner, with men having a generally less pronounced preference; as well, there is almost no one who prefers a female-taller pairs (sources: 1,2).

Compare the Himba preferences in sexual dimorphism:

With that of three European nations (using the same ratios) (source):

A study of the Yali tribe in Papua New Guinea (Judgments of Sexual Attractiveness: A Study of the Yali Tribe in Papua, 2012) found that they similarly do not show the same preference for male-taller pairs. As you can see in the below graph, preferences for different types of pairings are no different than what would be predicted by chance. As the authors note, this could be either because they have no real preference, or because of diverse preferences. While still about 60% chose a male-taller pair, that is significantly lower than European populations which all chose male-taller pairs at over 90%.

Another 2012 study, of the Datoga people of Tanzania (Height preferences in humans may not be universal: Evidence from the Datoga people of Tanzania) found yet another pattern. As you can see in the below graph, the Datoga expressed a preference for the extreme pairs, and, once again, a significantly larger amount than in western samples (like in the Polish sample, left) preferred female-taller or equal-tallness pairs.

Left graph shows SDS preference of Polish sample, while right shows Datoga.

Now, I would like to see more comprehensive studies done in horticultural and hunter-gatherer societies, as well as more non-western societies, however the above evidence suggests that there is certainly less conscious emphasis on height as an attractive male quality, backed up by evidence suggesting female-taller pairings are nearly (or least closer than one finds in industrial societies) to what one would expect by purely random pairings.

Is it possible that height as an important feature of male attractiveness is cultural? If so, what would be the cause? I was reading Leopold Pospisil’s ethnography of the Kapauku Papuans – he writes:

The quantitative orientation of the people leads them into placing value upon higher numbers and larger volume. Accordingly, a tall individual is admired and a weak or small one is regarded as peu, bad… Most of the objects that are small are bad, or at least not so good as larger ones.

On the other hand, perhaps these different populations have undergone different selection pressures to mold these preferences.

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2 thoughts on “Hadza and height preference

  1. To say that in general women prefer taller men is an understatement. Height seems to be *the* physical feature that women are sticklers about.

    Interesting and surprising that there are exceptions.

  2. Pingback: Pygmies, life-history, and maturation | unsafe harbour

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