Recent Changes in the Human Cranium

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According to a story on BBC News the human cranium has undergone some interesting changes over the last 600-700 years:

The two principal differences discovered were that our ancestors had more prominent features, but their cranial vault – the distance measured from the eyes to the top of the skull – was smaller.
Dr Peter Rock, lead author of the study and director of orthodontistry at Birmingham University, told the BBC News website: “The astonishing finding is the increased cranial vault heights.
“The increase is very considerable. For example, the vault height of the plague skulls were 80mm, and the modern ones were 95mm – that’s in the order of 20% bigger, which is really rather a lot.”

The study included 30 skulls from the mid 14th century (plague victims), 54 skulls from the wreck of the Mary Rose (Henry VIII’s warship) from 1545 and 31 recent (based on orthodontic records).

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16 Responses

  1. Yup! It’s a good example of secular change – which can actually be detected on a smaller scale (time wise).

  2. Now that’s highbrow!
    My first thought was an image of Alley Oop LOL!
    Seriously, this is cool stuff.

  3. Yes, I will probably do a post on it, in more detail, in the future. At the moment though I have two rather longish ones I’m working on…

  4. I’m eagerly a-waiting…

  5. I love the sweeping generalizations of the press when reporting on scientific papers. I also wish they’d tell you more complete bibliographic detail on the journal articles they report on.
    They’re looking at a subset of individuals who lived under VERY harsh times. I’d honestly rate Medieval Europe as one of the WORST times and places to be a person, EVER. I could see some ontogenetic factors being responsible for cranial vault differences.
    As far as I know the general trend since the emergence of Anatomically Moderns (at least since the Neolithic) is a slight DECREASE in cranial capacity.

  6. I love the sweeping generalizations of the press when reporting on scientific papers. I also wish they’d tell you more complete bibliographic detail on the journal articles they report on.
    They’re looking at a subset of individuals who lived under VERY harsh times. I’d honestly rate Medieval Europe as one of the WORST times and places to be a person, EVER. I could see some ontogenetic factors being responsible for cranial vault differences.
    As far as I know the general trend since the emergence of Anatomically Moderns (at least since the Neolithic) is a slight DECREASE in cranial capacity.

  7. IndianCowboy – Here is a link to the abstract – I don’t have access to the complete article or I would link to it. Certainly, the neanderthals had a larger cranial capacity than anatomically moderns. Keep in mind though, that this is one, small, sample of the neolithic and probably wouldn’t affect any overall trend (in a statistical sense).

  8. It sounds interesting, but I’m surprised at the sample size – I’d have thought a far larger sample would be easy to obtain (there are around 30000 medieval skulls in one medieval ossuary I know) and would offer substantially more reliable results. Also, they appear to be referring to size without reference to body height, although that may be an artifact of the journalism:)

  9. I’m a little surprised at the small sample size myself. I would hope they took body size into account since there is a trend for larger bodysize in recent human history, but without access to the study it’s hard to say (which is a good arguement for open access if you ask me).

  10. I’d honestly rate Medieval Europe as one of the WORST times and places to be a person, EVER.
    indiancowboy, the population was increasing a lot up the black death (medieval climatic optimum and all). i think your assertion is a sweeping generalization 🙂

  11. Interesting results, I’m curious to hear what further studies will show, but like others here I am a bit skeptical that something as simple as improved diet might not be a primary cause.
    Related to that, any studies looking at cranial vault variation amongst modern populations (say 1st world wealthy vs. Third world poor) to see if improved nutrition or simliar factors (water quality, improved medical care?) couldn’t explain the results?

  12. razib, and rural south india is teeming with people at the moment; their population is exploding. which doesn’t change the fact that they’re largely malnourished, immunocompromised, and that their growth rate is likely somewhat depressed due to the aforementioned malnourishment and immunocompromised state.
    Will, that is what I was getting at.
    Afarensis, if you want the full article, drop me an email, i’m still university-affiliated.

  13. razib, and rural south india is teeming with people at the moment; their population is exploding. which doesn’t change the fact that they’re largely malnourished, immunocompromised, and that their growth rate is likely somewhat depressed due to the aforementioned malnourishment and immunocompromised state.

    yes, but look at the rate of growth of a population (which is what i meant).

  14. not to get too far ahead of myself (because I plan on doing a more indepth post on this) but… malnutrition and sickness do affect growth rates and is certainly a factor in the results. To answer Will’s questions yes there are studies along those lines. We also have some skeletons from populations that went from, say hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist, as well as forensic samples that can help address the issue (but more on that later).

  15. Not to mention that orthodontists’ records necessarily select a wealthier, presumably better-nourished sample of the general population than one would expect of Henry VIII’s press-gangs.

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