Asia Pacific J Clin Nutr(1995)4: 69-72
Body composition in Aboriginal
Ingrid HE Rutishauser
School of Nutrition and Public Health, Deakin University,
The anthropomorphic features of Australian Aborigines
have been described, measured and reported in considerable detail
by explorers, anthropologists, anatomists and medical practitioners.
These reports have provided evidence that some aspects of Aboriginal
physique differ considerably from those of Europeans. For example,
it has been reported that Australian Aborigines of both sexes have
relatively shorter trunks and longer legs than almost every other
ethnic group, that body proportions differ less between males and
females, and that traditionally Australian Aborigines had a lower
weight for stature than Europeans of the same age and sex.
Less information exists on their body composition.
Available data, however, indicate that there may also be differences
in body fat distribution, but not in the amount of fat-free mass
(FFM) per unit of stature, between Australian Aborigines and Australians
of European origin
An analysis of the available data on body composition
suggests that the very low body mass index (BMI) values observed
in apparently healthy Aborigines, and the different relationship
in this ethnic group between BMI and the amount of subcutaneous
fat, are more likely to be due to a more central body fat distribution
than to differences in skeletal body proportions between Australian
Aborigines and Australians of European
The anthropomorphic features of Aboriginal Australians
have been described, measured and reported in considerable detail
since the time when European explorers and colonial voyagers first
established contact with the indigenous peoples of the Australian
continent. Captain Cook, for example, is said to have reported that
the stature of Aborigines is about the same as that of Europeans.
Other aspects of their physique, however, have been reported to differ
considerably from those of Europeans. Abbiel, for example,
describes Australian Aborigines as having a long head and face, high,
narrow shoulders, slim trunk, slender hips, thin arms, long thin legs
and long, slender hands and feet with correspondingly long and slender
bones. Figure 1, from Abbie2, illustrates these differences
in physical proportions between Europeans and Aboriginal males and
females. The most obvious features of this diagram are that the inferior
extremities appear to be relatively much longer in Australian Aborigines
and that differences in the physical proportions of men and women
appear to be less marked in Australian Aborigines than in Europeans.
Figure 1. Relative body proportions of European
and Njalia males and females based on the same vertical and horizontal
scale (Source: Abbie, 1957)2
Anthropometric measurements, as distinct from observations,
became the subject of numerous reports by anthropologists, anatomists
and medical practitioners working in remote areas in the first two
decades of the twentieth century. They continued to be a major component
of anthropological studies until the late 1960s when improved communications,
new biochemical techniques and portable refrigeration facilities shifted
the focus of interest to clinical and biochemical studies in Aboriginal
Abbie3, describing physical data collected
on full-blood Aborigines of both sexes and all ages in the course
of 10 expeditions between 1951 and 1963, refers to 40 anthropometric
measurements, and 30 indices derived from them, in addition to measurements
of blood pressure, dental status and skinfold thickness. The main
purpose of collecting this huge array of anthropometric measurements
was to determine 'whether the Aborigines in the various regions and
groups differ significantly in physical characters or whether they
are sufficiently alike to warrant the conclusion that they are physically
homogeneous'. From our perspective this is an important question since
it determines whether a discussion of body composition in Australian
Aborigines needs to consider the possibility of differences between
groups resident in different parts of the continent. At the time that
Abbie was writing, two basic hypotheses of the origin of Australian
Aborigines were in contention. The first of these was that Aborigines
are a racially homogeneous group. The second that Australian Aborigines
are the product of two or more racial groups which met and mixed on
the Australian continent.
Abbie's conclusion, based on his and other's data,
was that they are a physically homogeneous group3. In contrast,
other anthropologists, such as Birdsell4, came to a different
conclusion based on essentially the same broad body of anthropometric
Indices of body proportions
Relative shoulder breadth and relative sitting height,
together with the ratio of weight to stature, were considered to be
the indices which most specifically characterized the differences
in Aboriginal physical proportions from those of Europeans. With the
exception of weight for stature these indices are measures of skeletal
proportions both in the vertical (relative sitting height) and in
the horizontal plane (relative shoulder breadth) and in so far as
they may lead to differences in the amount of bone as a proportion
of the fat-free mass (FFM) they are relevant to our discussion of
ethnic differences in body composition. In order to provide some perspective
on the differences in these indices, between Australian Aboriginal
groups measured 50 years ago and those observed in contemporary groups
of Australian Aborigines and Australians of European origin, we have
compared the range of values recorded in the literature5
for Aborigines with the mean values observed in Birdsell's data4
for Aborigines as a group and for various sub-groups considered to
show distinct physical features as well as for a contemporary group
of Aborigines from the Kimberley region of Western Australia and a
group of Australian males of European origin. Figure 2 compares the
range of values for relative sitting height and Fig 3 the range of
values for relative shoulder breadth. What is clear from both figures
is firstly that a wide range of values for both these measures has
been reported, in the literature, for Australian Aborigines and secondly
that differences in mean values between Aboriginal groups in different
parts of the country, and at different times, are as great as those
between a contemporary group of Australian Aborigines and Australians
of European origin. All that can be said from these figures is that
the mean values for adult male Australians of European origin tend
to lie at the upper end of the range of values observed in Aboriginal
Australians. If the picture is similar in adult females it is unlikely
that there are major differences in the composition of the FFM, arising
from differences in body proportions, between Australian Aborigines
and Australians of European origin.
Figure 2. Relative sitting height of adult
males in groups of Aboriginal Australians and in Australians of European
Figure 3. Relative shoulder breadth of adult
males in groups of Australian Aborigines and in Australian of European
Figure 4. Weight for the same height and age
in Arnhem Land Aborigines and white Australian males and females aged
11-50 years (Source: Billington, 1956)6.
Anthropometric assessment of body composition
What then do we know about the body composition of
Australian Aborigines? In the past Australian Aborigines have generally
been described as lean with minimal subcutaneous fat. Billington6,
reporting on the height and weight of Aborigines in Arnhem Land, stated
that in no instance was an obese adult encountered. This relative
leanness is evident in the lower weight for the same height at all
ages and in both sexes shown in Fig 4 from Billington6.
Maximum weight was attained in the second decade of life and thereafter
tended to fall with age. This fall being more pronounced in women
than in men. Comparable data on skinfold thickness in Australian Aborigines
are sparse but that which exists7 is consistent with the
data on body weight. More recent information on changes in body mass
index (BMI) and in subcutaneous fat with age indicate, that in contemporary
Aboriginal groups both weight (Table I) and subcutaneous fat (Table
2) increase markedly with age8. Of interest to the present
discussion, on differences in body composition with ethnic origin,
is the fact that the relationship between BMI and subcutaneous fat
in Australian Aborigines appears to differ from that seen in Australian
women of European origin. On average Australian Aboriginal women with
the same level of subcutaneous fat (sum of triceps, biceps, subscapular
and suprailiac skinfolds) were found to have a BMI which was one to
two units lower than that of Australian women of European origin as
shown in Table 3 from Coles-Rutishauser9. The difference
in the relationship between subcutaneous fat and BMI is also clearly
demonstrated by the fact that prediction equations for body fat from
BMI based on data from populations of Caucasian origin such as the
equation of Womersley and Durnin10 predict zero body fat
in adult women with a BMI of 15.5 kg/m2 or less, whereas
we have observed Aboriginal women with a BMI as low as this not merely
to have measurable amounts of subcutaneous fat but also to be fertile
and to be able to breastfeed their infants successfully. Not only
was the relationship between BMI and subcutaneous fat found to differ
but the distribution of the subcutaneous fat also differed between
the two groups, with a much higher proportion, in the Aboriginal women,
being located on the trunk as compared with the limbs (Table 4). This
difference in the pattern of fat distribution suggests that estimates
of body fat from skinfolds using equations derived from skinfold-body
fat relationships in European women such as the equations of Durnin
and Womersley11 are unlikely to be appropriate for this
Table 1. Percentage distribution of Aboriginal
females by age and body mass index (BMI)18.
||AGE IN YEARS
|17.6 - 20.0
|20.1 - 25.0
|25.1 - 27.5
Table 2. Mean and standard deviation for four
skinfolds in Aboriginal women8.
|Age Group (yrs)
Table 3. Ninety-five percent confidence intervals
for BMI in Aboriginal and Caucasian women according to skinfold thickness9.
||Confidence intervals for BMI
|Sum of Skinfolds(mm)
||20.2 - 21.3
||22.4 - 23.1
||23.5 - 24.5
||25.0 - 26.0
Table 4. Differences in the distribution of
subcutaneous fat between Australian Aboriginal women and Australian
women of European origin.
Estimates of body composition from total body water
Apart from the determinations of total body water
(TBW) made on Aboriginal children by Cheek et al.12 we
are not aware of data on estimates of the FFM in Australian Aborigines
obtained using the stable isotope deuterium oxide. The advent of bio-electrical
impedance technology has made it possible also to obtain an estimate
of TBW by measuring the impedance of the body to a small alternating
current13. However, since it appears that the lower arm
and the lower leg both make a relatively large contribution to the
total body impedance14,15 it is not unlikely that the prediction
equations derived from impedance measurements in populations of Caucasian
origin may, like those based on other anthropometric measurements,
not be directly applicable to Australian Aborigines. It would appear
preferable, therefore, in the first instance to determine TBW by deuterium
oxide dilution and only subsequently to derive appropriate prediction
equations for this population based on impedance analysis. Table 5
shows data for adult Australian Aborigines for TBW, and TBW expressed
both per centimetre and per metre of height squared, compared with
similar data taken from the literature for men and women of European
origin16,17. The data in the table do not indicate differences
with ethnic origin in the amount of TBW per unit of height although
as might be expected, there are clear differences between males and
females. The numbers in all groups are small but there is no suggestion
from these data that Australian Aborigines have a different amount
of FFM per unit of height than do European adults of similar age and
Table 5. Total body water (TBW) per unit of
stature in Australian Aboriginal adults and in men and women of European
origin. (mean values).
The available data on the anthropometric profile of
Australian Aborigines indicate that there is considerable variation
within this ethnic group both in body size and body proportions. Differences
within sub-groups of the Aboriginal population appear to be as great
as those observed between groups of Aborigines and Australians of
European origin, although Australian Aborigines as a group do appear
to have lower values for both relative sitting height and relative
shoulder breadth than Australians of European origin. There is also
some evidence for a different relationship between BMI and the level
of subcutaneous fat, at least in females. This appears to be associated
with a more central fat distribution in Aborigines as compared with
Europeans. There is no evidence, from TBW measurements, for any differences
with ethnic origin in the amount of FFM per unit of height. The very
low BMIs (<15 kg/m2) observed in some otherwise apparently
healthy Aboriginal women would thus appear to be associated primarily
with a much lower level of limb fat in this group, as compared with
women of European origin, rather than with differences in skeletal
- Abbie AA. The original Australians. Adelaide: Rigby,
- Abbie AA. Metrical characters of a central Australian
tribe. Oceania 1957;27:220-243.
- Abbie AA. The homogeneity of Australian Aborigines.
Archaeol Phys Anthrop in Oceania 1968;3:223-231.
- Birdsell JB. Preliminary data on the trihybrid
origin of the Australian Aborigines. Archaeol Phys Anthrop in Oceania
- Abbie AA. Physical characteristics. In: Cotton
BC. ed. Aboriginal men in South and Central Australia, Part 1. Adelaide:
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- Billington BP. The health and nutritional status
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- Abbie AA. Skinfold thickness in Australian Aborigines.
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- Rutishauser IHE, McKay H. Anthropometric status
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- Coles-Rutishauser IHE. Body mass and body composition
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- Womersley J, Dumin JVGA. A comparison of the skinfold
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- Dumin JVGA, Womersley J. Body fat assessed both
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- Cheek DB, Graystone JE, Holt AB, et al. Assessment
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Clin Nutr 1978;31: 1328-1333.
- Lukaski HC, Johnson PE, Bolonchuk WW, et al. Assessment
of fat-free mass using bioelectrical impedance measurements of the
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- Baugartner RN, Chumlea WC, Roche AE Estimation
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Am J Clin Nutr 1989;50:221-226.
- Fuller NJ, Elia M. Potential use of bioelectrical
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Eur J Clin Nutr 1989:43;779-792.
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- Pritchard JE, Nowson CA Strauss BJ, et al. Evaluation
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- Gracey M, Spargo RM, Bottrell C, et al. Matemal
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Copyright © 1996 [Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical
Nutrition]. All rights reserved.
January 19, 1999