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Anthropometry (Greek άνθρωπος, man, and μέτρον, measure, literally meaning "measurement of humans"), in physical anthropology, refers to the measurement of the human individual for the purposes of understanding human physical variation.

Today, anthropometry plays an important role in industrial design, clothing design, ergonomics and architecture where statistical data about the distribution of body dimensions in the population are used to optimize products. Changes in life styles, nutrition and ethnic composition of populations lead to changes in the distribution of body dimensions (e.g., the obesity epidemic), and require regular updating of anthropometric data collections.

Illustration from "The Speaking Portrait" (Pearson's Magazine, Vol XI, January to June 1901) demonstrating the principles of Bertillon's anthropometry.



A Bertillon record for Francis Galton, from a visit to Bertillon's laboratory in 1893.

Bertillon, Galton, and criminology

The savant, Alphonse Bertillon (b. 1853), gave this name in 1883 to a system of identification depending on the unchanging character of certain measurements of parts of the human frame. He found by patient inquiry that several measures of physical features, along with dimensions of certain bones or bony structures in the body, remain fairly constant throughout adult life.

He concluded that when these measurements were made and recorded systematically every single individual would be found to be perfectly distinguishable from others. The system was soon adapted to police methods when crime fighters found value in being able to fix a person's identity. It prevented false impersonation and brought home, to any one charged with an offense, a person's responsibility for a wrongdoing. After its introduction in France in 1883 "Bertillonage," as it was called, became widely popular, and credited with producing highly gratifying results. Many countries followed suit in the adoption of the method, integrating it within their justice systems.

However it was almost a decade before England followed suit when in 1894 a special committee was sent to Paris for an investigation of the methods used and results obtained with them. It reported back favorably, especially on the use of measurements for primary classification, but also recommended the adoption, in part, of the system of "finger prints" as suggested by Francis Galton, and in practice at that time in Bengal, India.

A chart from Bertillon's Identification anthropométrique (1893), demonstrating how to take measurements for his identification system.

There were eleven measurements:

  1. Height
  2. Stretch: Length of body from left shoulder to right middle finger when arm is raised
  3. Bust: Length of torso from head to seat, taken when seated
  4. Length of head: Crown to forehead
  5. Width of head: Temple to temple
  6. Length of right ear
  7. Length of left foot
  8. Length of left middle finger
  9. Length of left cubit: Elbow to tip of middle finger
  10. Width of cheeks
  11. Length of left little finger

From this great mass of details, soon represented in Paris by the collection of some 100,000 cards, it was possible, proceeding by exhaustion, to sift and sort down the cards till a small bundle of half a dozen produced the combined facts of the measurements of the individual last sought.

The whole of the information is easily contained in one cabinet of very ordinary dimensions, and most ingeniously contrived so as to make the most of the space and facilitate the search. The whole of the record is independent of names, and the final identification is by means of the photograph which lies with the individual's card of measurements.

Anthropometry demonstrated in an exhibit from a 1921 eugenics conference.

Anthropometrics was first used in the 19th and early 20th century in criminalistics, to identifying criminals by facial characteristics. Francis Galton was a key contributor as well, and it was in showing the redundancy of Bertillon's measurements that he developed the statistical concept of correlation.

Bertillon's system originally measured variables he thought were independent - such as forearm length and leg length - but Galton had realized that both were the result of a single causal variable (in this case, stature). Bertillon's goal was to use anthropometry as a way of identifying recidivists—what we would today call "repeat-offense" criminals. Previously, police could only record general descriptions and names, and criminals often used alternative identities or aliases.

As such, it was a difficult job to identify whether or not certain individuals arrested were "first offenders" or life-long criminals. Photography of criminals had become commonplace but it had proven ungainly, as there was no coherent way to arrange visually the many thousands of photographs in a fashion which would allow easy use (an officer would have to sort through them all with the hope of finding one). Bertillon's hope was that through the use of measurements of the body, all information about the individual criminal could be reduced to a set of identifying numbers which could be entered into a large filing system.

Bertillon also envisioned the system as being organized in such a way that even if the number of measurements was limited the system could drastically reduce the number of potential matches, through an easy system of body parts and characteristics being labeled as "small", "medium", or "large". For example, if the length of the arm was measured and judged to be within the "medium" range, and the size of the foot was known, this would drastically reduce the number of potential records to compare against.

With more measurements of hopefully independent variables, a more precise identification could be achieved, which could then be matched against photographic evidence. Certain aspects of this philosophy would also go into Galton's development of fingerprint identification as well.

Anthropometry, however, gradually fell into disfavor, and it has been generally supplanted by the superior system of finger prints. Bertillonage exhibited certain defects which were first brought to light in Bengal. The objections raised were

  1. the costliness of the instruments employed and their liability to become out of order;
  2. the need for specially instructed measurers, men of superior education;
  3. the errors that frequently crept in when carrying out the processes and were all but irremediable.

Measures inaccurately taken, or incorrectly read off, could seldom, if ever, be corrected, and these persistent errors defeated all chance of successful search. The process was slow, as it was necessary to repeat it three times so as to arrive at a mean result. In Bengal, measurements were already abandoned by 1897, when the finger print system was adopted throughout British India. Three years later England followed suit; and as the result of a fresh inquiry ordered by the Home Office, finger prints were alone relied upon for identification.

Anthropology and anthropometry

A "head-measurer" tool designed for anthropological research in the early 1910s.

During the early 20th century, anthropometry was used extensively by anthropologists in the United States and Europe. One of its primary uses became the attempted differentiation between differences in the races of man, and it was often employed to show ways in which races were "inferior" to others.

The wide application of intelligence testing also became incorporated into a general anthropometric approach, and many forms of anthropometry were used for the advocacy of eugenics policies. During the 1920s and 1930s, though, members of the school of cultural anthropology of Franz Boas also began to use anthropometric approaches to discredit the concept of fixed biological race.

Anthropometric approaches to these types of problems became abandoned in the years after the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, who also famously relied on anthropometric measurements to distinguish Aryans from Jews. This school of physical anthropology generally went into decline during the 1940s.

During the 1940s anthropometry was used by William Sheldon when evaluating his somatotypes, according to which characteristics of the body can be translated into characteristics of the mind. Inspired by Cesare Lombroso's criminal anthropology, he also believed that criminality could be predicted according to the body type. This use of anthropometry is today also outdated. Because of his extensive reliance on photographs of nude Ivy League students for his work, Sheldon ran into considerable controversy when his work became public.

Modern anthropometry and biometrics

Anthropometric studies are today conducted for numerous different purposes. Academic anthropologists investigate the evolutionary significance of differences in body proportion between populations whose ancestors lived in different environmental settings. Human populations exhibit similar climatic variation patterns to other large-bodied mammals, following Bergmann's rule, which states that individuals in cold climates will tend to be larger than ones in warm climates, and Allen's rule, which states that individuals in cold climates will tend to have shorter, stubbier limbs than those in warm climates.

On a micro evolutionary level, anthropologists use anthropometric variation to reconstruct small-scale population history. For instance, John Relethford's studies of early twentieth-century anthropometric data from Ireland show that the geographical patterning of body proportions still exhibits traces of the invasions by the English and Norse centuries ago.

Outside academia, scientists working for private companies and government agencies conduct anthropometric studies to determine what range of sizes clothing and other items need to be manufactured in. A basically anthropometric division of body types into the categories endomorphic, ectomorphic and mesomorphic derived from Sheldon's somatotype theories is today popular among people doing weight training. Measurements of the foot are used in the manufacture and sale of footwear; measurement devices may be used to either directly determine a retail shoe size (e.g. Brannock Device) or determine the detailed dimensions of the foot for custom manufacture (e.g. ALINEr).

The US Military has conducted over 40 anthropometric surveys of U.S. Military personnel between 1945 and 1988, including the 1988 Army Anthropometric Survey (ANSUR) of men and women with its 240 measures. Statistical data from these surveys, which encompassed over 75,000 individuals, can be found in [1].

Today people are performing anthropometry with three-dimensional scanners. The subject has a three-dimensional scan taken of their body, and the anthropometrist extracts measurements from the scan rather than directly from the individual. This is beneficial for the anthropometrist in that they can use this scan to extract any measurement at any time and the individual does not have to wait for each measurement to be taken separately.

In 2001 the UK conducted the largest sizing survey using scanners up to date. Since then there have been several national surveys which have followed in the UK's pioneering steps, notably these are SizeUSA, SizeMexico & Size Thailand, the latter are still ongoing. Size UK showed that the nation had got taller and heavier, but not as much as many had expected. Since 1951 when the last women's survey had taken place the average weight for women had gone up from 62 to 65 kg.

A global collaborative study to examine the uses of three-dimensional scanners for health care was launched in March 2007. The Body Benchmark Study [2] will investigate the use of three-dimensional scanners to calculate volumes and segmental volumes of an individual body scan. The aim is to establish whether The Body Volume Index has the potential to be used as a long-term computer based anthropometric measurement for health care. More conventional anthropometric measurements also have uses in medical anthropology and epidemiology, for example in helping to determine the relationship between various body measurements (height, weight, percentage body fat, etc.) and medical outcomes.

See also

Notes and references

Historic references

  • Lombroso, Antropometria di 400 delinquenti (1872)
  • Roberts, Manual of Anthropometry (1878)
  • Ferri, Studi comparati di antropometria (2 vols., 1881-1882)
  • Lombroso, Rughe anomale speciali ai criminali (1890)
  • Bertillon, Instructions signalétiques pour l'identification anthropométrique (1893)
  • Livi, Anthropometria (Milan, 1900)
  • Fürst, Indextabellen zum anthropometrischen Gebrauch (Jena, 1902)
  • Report of Home Office Committee on the Best Means of Identifying Habitual Criminals (1893-1894)

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

In art Yves Klein termed anthropometries his performance paintings where he covered nude women with paint, and used their bodies as paintbrushes.


  • Pheasant, Stephen (1986). Bodyspace : anthropometry, ergonomics, and design. London; Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0850663520.   (A classic review of human body sizes.)

External links

1911 encyclopedia

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