At the intersection of land and sea, where it’s difficult to tell what is land and what is not, life is rough. The corrosive salt of the sea is devastating to most land species. Hence the near treeless landscape of the flat, monotonous tidal marshlands of (former) Frisia. Vice versa, most living things in water cannot cope with a sea that turns into land twice a day. Only the weirdest of species can survive in this barren twilight zone. Same is true for the strange looking humans who dwell in this unique environment and who are the topic of this post.
Contrary to what most people think or expect, the biodiversity of the Wadden Sea is not rich at all. Only around 10,000 different species live at the Wadden Sea. When one focuses on the tidal environment, only about 5,000 species can manage in this extreme habitat. When you compare this to the 36,000 species more inland from the Wadden Sea coast, this is a poor score (Revier 2019). Flipside is, however, once a species has managed to adapt to this harsh environment, competition is limited and food in abundance. Therefore, the numbers of those limited species present are huge. One cubic-meter of Wadden Sea mud contains millions of brown diatoms ‘kiezelwieren‘, thousands of small crabs, cockles, mussels, snails and worms. With accompanying smells; the true reward of living on the edge.
What about humans who managed to survive in this twilight land?
Below one of the oldest descriptions of the behaviour of Germanic/Celtic dwellers along the southern North Sea coast.
oceanico litore obducta est. qui habitant immanes sunt animis atque corporibus, et ad insitam feritatem vaste utraque exercent, bellando animos, corpora adsuetudine laborum maxime frigoris. nudi agunt antequam puberes sint, et longissima apud eos pueritia est. viri sagis velantur aut libris arborum, quamvis saeva hieme. nandi non patientia tantum illis, studium etiam est.Chorographia by Pomponius Mela, AD 44
It [Germania] is bound by an ocean shore. The people who dwell there are extraordinary in courage, as in physique, and thanks to their natural ferocity they exercise both prodigiously — their minds by making war, their bodies by habitual hard work but above all by habitual exposure to the cold. They live naked before they reach puberty, and childhood is very long among them. The men dress in wool clothing or the bark of trees even during the harsh winter. Not only they have endurance with swimming, they do it with enthusiasm too.
Of course, much has changed the last two millennia when we observe the modern dwellers. Putting their slightly autistic behavioural aspects aside, often mistaken for being impassively and unemotional, the inhabitants of the Wadden Sea coastal zone are still odd creatures, indeed. No denying there. An amphibious life-form. And, they are actually giants. If you don’t believe it, just Google or Bing ‘tallest people’ and the Netherlands invariably rank as number 1 of our planet. Average height of males in this small country is a staggering 1.83 metres, and of females 1.69 metres. And that is not all. Men of the Wadden Sea coast, i.e. provinces Friesland and Groningen in the north of the Netherlands, are on average 2 centimetres taller than their fellow countrymen of the south. Women are even on average 2.4 centimetres taller than their competitors of the south. So, the tallest men and women this planet has ever seen, live along the coastal zone of the Wadden Sea.
Tall Crusaders – Already in the High Middle Ages, during the Crusades, the Frisian fighters -together with the Danes- were described as the tall big men from the north. Read our post Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea. Maybe, those days with a bit more temper than today.
Furthermore, when you look at their features you will notice somewhat long, pale faces, exceptional long and gangling arms, somewhat curved shoulders, often big ears and noses. Always huge hands and often blond hair. Needless to say, the latter might also be the result of a salty environment which bleaches their head of hair. You could say, taking everything together, they look a bit like that other sea dog: Popeye. And, who doesn’t want to look like Popeye?
Those readers who have been to the north of the Netherlands before and stepped into a local bar in, let’s say, the villages of Wommels or Bierum, might have felt impressed and somewhat insecure to be surrounded by these giants. To order a beer means the bar counter is at your chest level. At the very least. Don’t even bother to go the men’s toilet. Impossible to reach it, unless you take a crutch with you. Or, alternatively, have one of the giants to give you a lift. Ask them, they are used helping out little people. Above that, the giants also make a lot of noise when they drink. A noise you cannot decipher either. But do not fear. Stay calm. They’re all really as big and as friendly as their dozy, hornless Holstein-Friesian cows.
Really all of them? Well, one exception. This was tall Grutte Pier (‘great Pier’). A pirate, mercenary annex freedom fighter from the village Kimswerd who lived at the end of the fifteenth century, and who was known for his violence and strength. We calculated his estimated height at a staggering 2.3 meters. Check our post How great was Great Pier? (the sequel).
As to why dwellers of the Wadden Sea region are so tall, is (still) unclear to biologists. Of course, it’s genetic and food has some influence too. But why the feature height became such a strong gene in the evolutionary selection process, they haven’t figured out yet. Have Frisian women a preference for tall men, maybe? And if so, why?
It’s tempting to simply suggest that the dwellers of the tidal marshlands literally had to keep their heads above the water during the many great storm floods. If not during storm floods, tallness was needed to stick out of the sucking mud of the salt marshes and, more inland, out of the treacherous peatlands anyway. With their big hands and long arms, they endlessly dragged and moved heavy clay to strengthen, repair and heighten their terps (to know what a terp is and how to raise one yourself, please consult our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps) and to build and enforce their dikes. But also to dig and empty the infinitely many ditches they had scraped into the landscape to get rid of the salt water. For many centuries it was a tough competition, because if you wanted to survive, you had to move more soil than sea did, every minute of every hour. Cutting ditches into the landscape is even how the tribe name ‘Fries‘ is explained; see our post A severe case of inattentional blindness: the Frisian tribe’s name.
If you think because of this history the people have a somber view of life, you’ll be surprised. Although the people of province Friesland belong to the poorest of the country (only behind their eastern cousins of province Groningen), and have one of the highest unemployment rates too, they turn out to be the most happiest of the Netherlands. This according to repeated statistical research of the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (2017) and the Fries Sociaal Planbureau (2019). ‘The Frisian paradox’ as it is referred too. Some call it brede welvaart ‘broad prosperity’. On top of this, the Netherlands recently ranked number 5 of the most happiest countries in the world, behind Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland (World Happiness Report 2019). Indeed, Frisians are a cozy bunch of friendly happy giants. When we look at the Nordfriesen ‘North Frisians’, it’s the northern state Schleswig-Holstein where the happiest people of Germany live, already since 2013 (Deutsche Post Glückatlas 2020).
Another interesting fact is that these less well-off but happy Frisians also have the lowest level of trust in the Dutch government. Something they share with the (former) mining regions in provinces Groningen and Limburg. ‘We manage better on our own,’ seems to be feeling.
In other words, just like the other 5,000 weird-looking animal species of the salty twilight land, humans had to adapt to extreme circumstances too, and therefore have their own particularities as well. If this feels as an understatement, it is.
Note 1 – For the record, the abbreviation of Roald Dahl’s book ‘The BFG’ is often misinterpreted. It is not Big Friendly Giant, but, of course, Big Frisian Giant. The mix-up is understandable since BFG’s are, as explained in this post, friendly indeed.
Note 2 – In 2018, the marionette street theatre Giants of Royal de Luxe visited province Friesland. The big northerners were truly amazed, and still talk about it. For the first time in their lives they saw creatures that were even taller than themselves.
Note 3 – This post focusses mainly at the descendants of Mid Frisia, i.e. the provinces Friesland and Groningen in the north of the Netherlands. It would be interesting to have more data on heights and tallness of people living along the Wadden Sea coast in the states Niedersachsen and Schleswig-Holstein (i.e. regions Ostfriesland, Land Wursten, Dithmarshen and Nordfriesland) in Germany. If you have any additional data, please let us know.
Note 4 – Became interested in a personal encounter with a Frisian? Study our post Grassland Conversations, to be prepared, and to get the most (or at least something) out of it.
- McFerrin, B., Don’t Worry Be Happy (1988)
- Beuningen, van J. & Akkermans M., Regionale verschillen in geluksbeleving en tevredenheid met het leven in 2013-2019 (2020)
- Dahl, R., The BFG (1982)
- Darwin, C., The Origin of Species (1859)
- Dawkins, R., The Selfish Gene (1976)
- Mela, P., Chorographia (44)
- Squatriti, P., Digging Ditches in Early Medieval Europe (2002)
- Tinbergen, N., The Study of Instinct (1951)
- Vries, de W., Brander, A., Piekema L., Fernee, H. & Witte, de T., Leven in Fryslân (2019)
- Zonderop, Y., ‘Je hoeft hier niet vanaf je zestiende rendabel te zijn’. Groeiende twijfel: De Friese paradox (2022)