The biological standard of living in pre-modern Korea: Determinants of height of militia recruits during the Choson dynasty

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Abstract

This paper extends the research on the biological standard of living in the Korean peninsula back to pre-modern times. Drawing on militia rosters of the Choson Dynasty from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, we tentatively conclude that the final height of Korean men during this period was 166 cm and thus slightly above that of modern North Korean men (165 cm). On the other hand, the average height of modern South Korean men is 172 cm, 6 cm more than what we tentatively estimate for pre-modern Korean men. Regression analysis of the height of pre-modern Korean men finds that un-free Koreans (“slaves”) were significantly shorter by about 0.6–0.7 cm than commoners, whereas the average height of recruits suffering from smallpox did not differ significantly from that of other recruits. Moreover, regional, as opposed to birth-dummy, variables account, and to a significant degree, for most of the differences in height. Whether or not this is a result of socioeconomic differences across provinces or a result of other regionally-varying factors remains an open question.

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