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Skulls: Now More Of Them Can Speak

Skulls of children reach the shape they will have as adults much earlier than previously thought - a finding with significant ramifications for anthropological population studies.

The skeletal remains of bygone societies have long been able to tell anthropologists a lot about their civilizations and way of life. However, a significant segment of those populations was left largely mute: the children. Now, new research is likely to give those children a voice.

Physical anthropologists can tell a lot about a person from their skull. Among other things, they can tell what a person’s ancestry likely was, based on specific cranial features that are characteristic of different populations. For example, the skulls of Mediterranean populations have a certain collection of characteristics that you would be unlikely to find in the skulls of populations anywhere else.

By examining human remains and identifying them as belonging to different population groups, researchers can track the movement of populations across space and time. When did this group arrive in this area? Where did they come from? The physical record the skulls provide is an extremely useful tool for anthropologists trying to piece together what happened to societies that may have left a sparse or confusing historical record.

But, historically, anthropologists believed that only adult skulls (aged 18 or older) could be used to identify these populations. The thinking was that the skulls of children were not sufficiently developed to allow researchers to look for or identify the population-specific characteristics that were needed to determine a body’s ancestry.

New research from Drs. Ann Ross and Shanna Williams (of NC State University and the University of Florida, respectively) shows that the remains of children can tell us more than we previously thought. By using geometric morphometrics, the researchers found that the skulls of children reach the shape they will have as adults at least as early as 14 years old – and quite possibly much earlier. The study was published in The Journal of Craniofacial Surgery.

This means anthropologists are now able to analyze the skulls of people who died before the age of 18, and can incorporate that data into their work – resulting in more robust datasets on populations.

For the first time, these deceased young people can tell us a little bit more about what their world was like.