'Body measurements' like handspans work better than metric

‘Body-based measurements’ like handspans, cubits and fathoms still work better than their metric alternatives, according to experts

  • University of Helsinki researchers said people have ‘affection’ for old methods
  • The research also found that around a third of cultures use them to barter

Cubits, fathoms and handspans may live on only in the history books for most of us.

But these ‘body-based measurements’ can often work better than their metric alternatives, experts have said.

Whether it is a gardener planting vegetables in rows a hand-span apart or a cook using a pinch of salt in a recipe, a study has found people still use their bodies to work out distances and amounts about five millennia after standardised measurements were invented.

Researchers looked at 99 societies which were representative of cultures across the world over several centuries.

They found almost a quarter of them used some variation of the fathom – a handy way of measuring distance by stretching out both arms.

But these ‘body-based measurements’ can often work better than their metric alternatives, experts have said. Stock image of hands

The second most popular body-based measurement was the cubit, which is the distance from the tip of the elbow to the tip of your pointing finger, followed by a handspan.

Hands are still used to judge the height of horses, although a ‘hand’ now means precisely four inches, based on the average distance between a thumb and finger on an outstretched hand.

The study concludes that body-based measurements must not be allowed to fall into disuse for three key reasons.

Firstly, they are important for custom-made clothing which fits like a glove, and for personalised equipment such as skis and kayaks.

Secondly, as fishermen know, it is often much easier to use the old-fashioned methods, like stretching out sections of a fishing line between outstretched arms repeatedly to judge its total length.

And finally body-based measurements can provide more practical information than simple metric numbers.

The Ifugao tribe in the Philippines measure distance by the number of rests needed to cross an area of mountainous terrain, arguably far more useful than simply working out how many miles it is.

Dr Roope Kaaronen, who led the study from the University of Helsinki, said: ‘People have a lot of affection for these old words and the traditional knowledge they contain.

‘I still measure the toe space inside new shoes with my thumb and, as a keen kayaker, I follow the Greenland system of making paddles a fathom and cubit in length.

‘I am sure I am not the only one who still finds these body-based measurements useful, and I question the idea that they are in some way primitive and have been overtaken by the metric system.’

The study, published in the journal Science, notes that King Edward VI ordered every Englishman to construct a longbow based on their own height plus a fistmele – the width of a fist with an extended thumb.

Meanwhile the fathom is still used as a nautical unit of depth in the UK, although it has now been standardised to mean six feet.

Researchers found body-based measurement units have been most used worldwide for clothing, shoes and textiles, construction and carpentry, weaponry, like the bows and arrows used by modern-day hunter-gatherers, and transport-related objects like kayaks, skis and sleds.

Around a third of cultures also used them to barter in markets.

Perhaps the most inventive use was devised by the Nicobarese tribe in the Indian Ocean, who measure canoe trips based on the number of coconut drinks they will consume on the thirsty journey.

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