From the ancient process of Chinese foot binding to modern criticisms of Western celebrities, the world has long held tiny feet in high regard.

However, a new study from the University of Washington may poke some holes in the idea that humans are hard-wired to prefer small feet to large ones.

Biocultural anthropologist Geoff Kushnick studied a group of agriculturalists in Sumatra, the Karo Batak, who appear to find larger feet more beautiful due to their greater usefulness in wading through murky rice paddies.

Kushnick showed 159 Karo Batak adults, split evenly between the sexes and ranging in age from 19-90 (the average being 40), a picture of five women who were identical save for the size of their feet. He then asked each subject which woman seemed the most attractive.

Kushnick found the Karo Batak people had a "striking preference" for the images of women with larger feet.

The Karo are one of six "Batak" groups from northern Sumatra, Kushnick writes. The group's culture has changed considerably over the past 150 years under colonial, missionary, and national pressures.

For example, "they have changed from a reliance on shifting cultivation to a more intensive blend of subsistence and cash-cropping." Such changes, coupled with the group's isolation from Western media, have shaped its conception of beauty.

"In the Karo Batak communities I studied, men were overheard saying that a woman with larger feet was stronger and thus more productive in the rice fields," Kushnick noted.

Sentiments of this sort are not limited to one group in Indonesia. Particular clusters around Cambodia, Tanzania, and Papua New Guinea, have all demonstrated an affinity for large feet — a phenomenon Kushnick acknowledges in the report.

"The Karo Batak are not unique, however" he writes, "as people in a number of societies have similar contrarian preferences, in particular in rural communities with relatively less access to Western media."

He concludes, "These findings suggest that future effort toward studying the underlying causes of mate-choice diversity might focus on the human ability to adapt to diverse environments using transmitted culture."

Source: Kushnick G. Why Do the Karo Batak Prefer Women with Big Feet? Flexible Mate Preferences and the Notion that One Size Fits All. Human Nature. 2013.