A reassessment of human cranial plasticity: Boas revisited

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2002 Nov 12;99(23):14636-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.222389599. Epub 2002 Oct 8.


In 1912, Franz Boas published a study demonstrating the plastic nature of the human body in response to changes in the environment. The results of this study have been cited for the past 90 years as evidence of cranial plasticity. These findings, however, have never been critiqued thoroughly for their statistical and biological validity. This study presents a reassessment of Boas' data within a modern statistical and quantitative genetic framework. The data used here consist of head and face measurements on over 8,000 individuals of various European ethnic groups. By using pedigree information contained in Boas' data, narrow sense heritabilities are estimated by the method of maximum likelihood. In addition, a series of t tests and regression analyses are performed to determine the statistical validity of Boas' original findings on differentiation between American and European-born children and the prolonged effect of the environment on cranial form. Results indicate the relatively high genetic component of the head and face diameters despite the environmental differences during development. Results point to very small and insignificant differences between European- and American-born offspring, and no effect of exposure to the American environment on the cranial index in children. These results contradict Boas' original findings and demonstrate that they may no longer be used to support arguments of plasticity in cranial morphology.

MeSH terms

  • Aging
  • Anthropology, Physical*
  • Ethnic Groups
  • Europe
  • European Continental Ancestry Group
  • Face
  • Female
  • Head*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Skull / anatomy & histology*
  • Skull / growth & development
  • Skull / physiology*