Biological Measures of Economic History

Posted: 7 Aug 2013

See all articles by Richard H. Steckel

Richard H. Steckel

Ohio State University (OSU) - Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: January 2013


This review discusses the methodology and some findings underlying four types of biological measures used by economic historians: mortality rates, stature, body mass index, and skeletal remains. Economic historians examine a variety of sources to learn when, why, and where modern industrial societies became rich and healthy. Monetary measures, such as income and wages, are highly desirable but usually unavailable to cover the time periods and countries over which modern societies evolved. Donning interdisciplinary lenses, these historians search archives, libraries, and archaeological sources for scraps of information, often assembled for other purposes, to construct a story of the evolution of humanity’s well-being. Biological measures have the advantage of comparability across time and culture; life expectancy, for example, means about the same today as in ancient Egypt, but the same cannot be said for the purchasing power of income, wages, or wealth.

Suggested Citation

Steckel, Richard H., Biological Measures of Economic History (January 2013). Annual Review of Economics, Vol. 5, pp. 401-423, 2013, Available at SSRN: or

Richard H. Steckel (Contact Author)

Ohio State University (OSU) - Economics ( email )

1945 North High Street
Columbus, OH 43210-1172
United States
614-292-5008 (Phone)

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics