On the edge of land and sea, where it is 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 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 twilight zone. The same is true for the strange looking humans who dwell in this environment and 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 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). The flipside is, however, once a species has managed to adapt to the harsh environment, competition is limited and food in abundance. Therefore, the numbers of the species present are huge. One cubic-metre Wadden Sea mud contains millions of diatoms, thousands of small crabs, mussels, snails and worms. The reward of living on the edge.
And what about the humans that learned to live at this twilight land?
The inhabitants are repulsive of character and body. They exercise a lot, on top of their innate savagery: their character through warfare, their body hardened especially against the cold. They walk naked until they reach adulthood, and their childhood is long. (…) Not only they do not mind swimming, they enjoy doing it.Chorographia by Pomponius Mela, AD 44
Putting behavioral aspects aside, inhabitants of the Wadden Sea coastal zone are odd creatures indeed. No denying there. They are actually giants. If you do not believe it, just Google or Bing ‘tallest people’ and the Netherlands invariably rank as number 1 of our planet. The average height of men in this small country is a staggering 1.83 meters and of women 1.69 meters. But, that is not all. The men of the Wadden Sea coast, i.e. provinces Friesland and Groningen in the north of the Netherlands, are on average 2 centimeters taller than their fellow countrymen of the south. The women are even on average 2.4 centimeters taller than their competitors of the south. So, the tallest people this planet has ever seen live along the coastal zone of the Wadden Sea.
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 blog post Foreign Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea. Maybe, those days with a bit more temper than today.
Furthermore, if you look to 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 hairs. You could say, taking everything together, they look a bit like that other sea man: Popeye. And, who does not 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 insecure to be surrounded by giants. To order a beer means the bar counter is at your chest level. At the very least. And do not even bother to go the men’s toilet. Impossible to reach it, unless you take a crutch with you. Or, 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, which you cannot decipher either. But do not fear. They all are really as big and as friendly as their dozy, hornless Holstein-Friesian cows.
As to why dwellers of the Wadden Sea region are so tall, is (still) unclear to biologists. Of course, it is genetic and food has some influence too. But why the feature height became such a strong gene in the evolutionary selection process, they have not figured out yet. Have Frisian women maybe a preference for tall men? And if so, why? It is 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 fenlands anyway. With their big hands and long arms, they endlessly dragged and moved heavy clay to strengthen, repair and heighten their terps (read our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps) and to build and enforce their dikes. For many centuries it was a tough competition, because if you wanted to survive you had to move more soil than sea did.
If you think because of this history the people have a somber view of life, you will 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, they turn out to be the most happiest of the Netherlands. This according to repeated statistical research of Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (2017) and of Fries Sociaal Planbureau (2019). ‘The Frisian paradox’ as it is called too. 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, the Frisians are a cosy bunch of friendly, happy giants. When we look at the Nordfriesen, it is the most northern state of Schleswig-Holstein where already since 2013 the happiest people of Germany live (Deutsche Post Glückatlas, 2020).
In other words, just like the other 5,000 weird-looking animal species of the twilight land, humans had to adapt to extreme circumstances too and have therefore their own particularities as well.
Note 1: In 2018 the Giants of Royal de Luxe visited the province Friesland. The northerners were truly amazed, and still talk about it. Because, for the first time in their lives they saw creatures that were taller than themselves.
Note 2: For the record, the abbreviation of Roald Dahl’s book ‘The BFG’ is often misinterpreted. It is not Big Friendly Giant, but Big Frisian Giant. The mix-up is understandable since BFG’s are, as explained in this post, friendly indeed.
Note 3: This post focuses 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 the people living along the Wadden Sea coast in the states Niedersachsen and Schleswig-Holstein (Ostfriesland, Dithmarshen and Nordfriesland) in Germany. If you have any additional data, please let us know.
Suggestions for further reading
- Dahl, R., The BFG (1982)
- Darwin, C., The Origin of Species (1859)
- Dawkins, R., The Selfish Gene (1976)
- Mela, P., Chorographia (44)
- Tinbergen, N., The Study of Instinct (1951)