The biological standard of living in early nineteenth-century West Africa: new anthropometric evidence for northern Ghana and Burkina Faso



West Africans are on average shorter than Europeans today. Whether this was already the case at the end of the Atlantic slave trade is an important question for the history of nutrition and physical welfare. We present the first study of changing heights for people born mostly in what are now northern Ghana and Burkina Faso during the early nineteenth century. The dataset, not used before for anthropometry, documents men born between 1800 and 1849. Mostly purchased from slave owners, they were recruited into the Dutch army to serve in the Dutch East Indies. We find that height development was stagnant between 1800 and 1830 and deteriorated strongly during the 1840s. In international comparison and after taking selectivity issues into account, these Ghanaian and Burkinabe recruits were notably shorter than north-western Europeans but not shorter than southern Europeans during this period.