Ecogeographical associations between climate and human body composition: analyses based on anthropometry and skinfolds

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2012 Feb;147(2):169-86. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21591. Epub 2011 Dec 30.


In the 19th century, two "ecogeographical rules" were proposed hypothesizing associations of climate with mammalian body size and proportions. Data on human body weight and relative leg length support these rules; however, it is unknown whether such associations are attributable to lean tissue (the heat-producing component) or fat (energy stores). Data on weight, height, and two skinfold thickness were obtained from the literature for 137 nonindustrialized populations, providing 145 male and 115 female individual samples. A variety of indices of adiposity and lean mass were analyzed. Preliminary analyses indicated secular increases in skinfolds in men but not women, and associations of age and height with lean mass in both sexes. Decreasing annual temperature was associated with increasing body mass index (BMI), and increasing triceps but not subscapular skinfold. After adjusting for skinfolds, decreasing temperature remained associated with increasing BMI. These results indicate that colder environments favor both greater peripheral energy stores, and greater lean mass. Contrasting results for triceps and subscapular skinfolds might be due to adaptive strategies either constraining central adiposity in cold environments to reduce cardiovascular risk, or favoring central adiposity in warmer environments to maintain energetic support of the immune system. Polynesian populations were analyzed separately and contradicted all of the climate trends, indicating support for the hypothesis that they are cold-adapted despite occupying a tropical region. It is unclear whether such associations emerge through natural selection or through trans-generational and life-course plasticity. These findings nevertheless aid understanding of the wide variability in human physique and adiposity.

MeSH terms

  • Arm / anatomy & histology
  • Body Composition / physiology*
  • Body Mass Index
  • Climate*
  • Continental Population Groups
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Regression Analysis
  • Skinfold Thickness*