Finger, ulna and foot: what strengths natural dimensions have

Science finger, ulna and foot

The strength of natural dimensions

One of the most common units of measurement is the distance between the fingertips of the outstretched arms and the cubit

One of the most common units of measurement is the distance between the fingertips of the outstretched arms and the cubit

Credit: Getty Images/Dennis Fischer Photography

Certain body measurements make it easier to measure slack objects like fishing nets or rope. In addition, natural dimensions are always available: “one cubit” or “two finger widths” have therefore been used for thousands of years. Why? The reasons for this are diverse.

Es doesn’t always have to be a tape measure or meter rule: before units like the meter, mile, or hectare became established, people across cultures used body-based measurements like the cubit, foot, or thumb width. Finnish researchers are now describing in Journal “Science”how these units have developed and partly held up – and why they might still be superior to some standard dimensions today.

For their study, a team led by Roope Kaaronen from the University of Helsinki used the ethnographic database “Human Relations Area Files” (HRAF) to examine the development and use of natural measures in 186 cultures worldwide. The scientists’ analysis revealed that variations in the arm span, which describes the distance between the fingertips of the outstretched arms, the hand span and the ulna were the most common across all cultures examined. There were clear similarities across cultures.

The researchers around Kaaronen worked out four aspects that could explain how and why natural dimensions developed and sometimes lasted for a very long time:

– “Body-based units have the advantage of offering a tailored ergonomic design in a way that is often overlooked in standardized systems,” the research team writes. As an example, it cites the construction of kayaks by the Yupik Eskimo groups and the Greenlandic Inuit. They used body-based measurements to customize kayak designs: “A responsive kayak requires proper body positioning. Consequently, there is no one size fits all kayaker.” Similar principles can be found in the construction of skis among the Finno-Ugric ethnic group of the Khanty and in the individualized design of weapons such as bows, but also clothing and shoes.

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– Certain body measurements make it easier to measure slack objects like fishing nets or rope.

– Natural dimensions are always available. A member of the Mapuche, an indigenous people of South America, is quoted in the study: “But I don’t always have a meter handy; I know my wima (the length from the Adam’s apple to the fingertips of an outstretched arm) is almost a meter and I use it.”

– In some cases, body-based measures allow to include local knowledge. For example, the Nicobarese, indigenous people of the Nicobar Archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, cite the distance of canoe trips in the amount of coconut drinks consumed, according to the researchers. “In the salt water of the Indian Ocean, hydration is a particularly important factor and it seems practical to measure distances in the required fluid units.”

Furthermore, standardized units of length such as nautical miles would not sufficiently take into account local variations in currents, weather and wind conditions, all of which could affect physical exertion and travel time (and hence the amount of fluid required).

Significant influence of rulers and large states

All in all, their analysis shows that body-based units of measurement continued to be used worldwide in the 20th century, almost five millennia after the advent of the first known standardized units, the scientists write. The researchers explain their gradual disappearance primarily through the emergence of states and industrialization: Activities such as intercultural trade, regulation and taxation would require standardization and subdivision that body-based units of measurement do not offer.


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“This would also explain why standardized units emerged primarily through the influence of rulers and large states,” they write. The transition from body-related measurement systems to standardized units reflects a major turning point in human cultural development, which has led to the development of production systems from local and heterogeneous to global and homogeneous systems. “As a result, the traditional units of measurement are endangered in the general cultural extinction that followed globalization, industrialization, and colonization.”

In a Science commentary, Wayne State University anthropologist Stephen Chrisomalis points out that body-based measurement is not a holdover or cultural antecedent of today’s standard units of measurement. Rather, arm spans, cubits, and other measurements have survived because they continue to be useful to different cultures.

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