Timon Singh

Lack Of Exercise, Too Much Food and Advanced Medicine Have Given White Americans 'Bigger Heads'

by , 06/07/12
filed under: global development

University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, white skulls, medical advances, calorie in-take, skull growth, lifestyle change, fat america

Researchers from the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center have discovered that over the past 150 years, changes in lifestyle and an increase in calorie in-take have given white Americans ‘bigger heads’. But while the average cranium has grown in size, has intelligence?

University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, white skulls, medical advances, calorie in-take, skull growth, lifestyle change, fat america

The study was undertaken as part of research to help police forces determine sex and race from skulls. For most of the 20th century, those people who leave their bodies to science often find their skulls included in a similar database. Over time, the catalogue has amassed 1,500 skulls, and according to Lee Jantz (coordinator of Forensic Anthropology Cente), Richard Jantz (professor emeritus), and Joanne Devlin, the past 100 years have seen white people’s heads get bigger.

The study did not really include many skulls from black and Hispanic people, because in terms of numbers not many tend to  donate their bodies to science. However, the study had a plethora of white American skulls that revealed some interesting facts.

Over the past 150 years, the report stated that the height of white male skulls has increased by eight millimeters while the overall skull has grown by 200 cubic centimeters. For women, cranium height increased by seven millimeters and overall by 180 cubic centimeters.

“The basic thing that we observed over the course of looking at crania that belong to people born from 1820s to 1980s, is that the cranium has gotten higher and narrower,” said Richard Jantz in an interview. “If you just look at a side view of the skull, what you would see is the distance from top to bottom increased, and if you look at a front view of the skull, you would see the distance from side to side decreased.”

But why has this happened? If Americans’ brains are getting bigger, are they also getting smarter? Not exactly. It all comes down to changes in lifestyle.

Over the past century, the typical American lifestyle has changed dramatically. People are no longer primarily farmers and don’t perform nearly as much manual labor as they used to. Food consumption has also increased, so the average body doesn’t need to struggle to consume enough calories. If anything the body is consuming too many, and as a result more energy is going to the brain causing the skull to balloon.

Advances in medication have also led to larger heads as in the past, and babies with big heads have had problems escaping the birth canal. Today, caesarean sections don’t make this as much of a problem as it used to be, and more large-headed babies become normal adults. Another effect has been that children are maturing much earlier than they used to. The team is hoping to look at more black and Hispanic skulls in order to compare the results, but as a lot of the country’s Hispanic people are not born in the United States, this could affect results.

So there you go, over the past 100 years Americans have gotten “taller, fatter and bigger”, but Jantz is quick to point out that unfortunately bigger skulls and brains don’t necessarily mean greater intelligence. “We are liv­ing in an en­vi­ron­ment that’s to­tally dif­fer­ent from what’s ev­er ex­isted in the past. It’s like put­ting ex­pe­ri­men­tal an­i­mals in an ex­treme en­vi­ron­ment.”

+ University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center

Via World Science

Images: PietercoGonzo Carles and Jason Anfinsen

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