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Secular changes in stature, weight, or other components of the body that can be obtained from historical records have been extensively studied. Cranial change has been central to anthropology for more than a century, but the focus has normally been on change measured in centuries or millennia. Cranial change measured in decades, normally considered to result from plastic response to the environment, has been less studied. This article reports on change in cranial vault dimensions in white Americans.

Variables were glabello-occipital length (GOL), basion-bregma height (BBH), basion-nasion length (BNL), maximum cranial breadth (XCB), and biauricular breadth (AUB). Cranial size was calculated as the geometric mean of these variables, and shape dimensions were calculated as described by Darroch and Mosimann (1985). Cranial module and cranial capacity were also calculated. Samples consisted of 1,112 males and 668 females complete for those variables. Samples were organized into 10-year birth cohorts, with birth years ranging from 1820 to 1990. One-way ANOVA was used to test for variation among cohorts. The pattern of secular change was examined graphically and was compared with quality-of-life and environmental indicators, including stature, infant mortality, calories per person, and relative number of immigrants.

All variables showed significant secular change, but BBH, XCB, and BNL responded most strongly. Over the past 170 years, crania became relatively higher, narrower, and larger with longer cranial bases. Both sexes changed, but female change was less pronounced than male change. The cranial variables tracked secular changes in stature, most prominently BNL. The highest correlation between a cranial variable and quality-of-life indicator was BBH and infant mortality.

We are not able to identify specific causes of secular changes in cranial morphology. However, given that modern Americans have introduced themselves into a novel environment never before experienced by human populations, we consider it unlikely that it is pure plasticity. In addition to possible plastic responses, it is likely that selection, acting through the dramatic changes in infant mortality, is also involved.