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Rapid morphological change in living humans: implications for modern human origins.

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  • 1Behavioral Sciences, CA 29, University of Michigan-Dearborn, Dearborn, MI 48128, USA.


Human body size and body proportions are interpreted as markers of ethnicity, 'race,' adaptation to temperature, nutritional history and socioeconomic status. Some studies emphasize only one of these indicators and other studies consider combinations of indicators. To better understand the biocultural nature of human size and proportions a new study of the growth of Maya-American youngsters was undertaken in 1999 and 2000. One purpose of this research is to assess changes in body proportion between Maya growing up in the US and Maya growing up in Guatemala. Height and sitting height of 6-12-year-old boys and girls (n=360) were measured and the sitting height ratio [sitting height/height]x100, a measure of proportion, was calculated. These data are compared with a sample of Maya of the same ages living in Guatemala and measured in 1998 (n=1297). Maya-American children are currently 10.24 cm taller, on average, and have a significantly lower sitting height ratio, (i.e. relatively longer legs, averaging 7.02 cm longer) than the Guatemala Maya. Maya-American children have body proportions more like those of white children in the US than like Maya children in Guatemala. Improvements in the environment for growth, in terms of nutrition and health, seem to explain both the trends in greater stature and relatively longer legs for the Maya-Americans. These findings are applied to the problem of modern human origins as assessed from fossil skeletons. It has been proposed that heat adapted, relatively long-legged Homo sapiens from Africa replaced the cold adapted, relatively short-legged Homo neandertalensis of the Levant and Europe [J Hum Evol 32 (1997a) 423]. Skeletal samples of Maya adults from rural Guatemala have body proportions similar to adult Neandertals and to skeletal samples from Europe with evidence of nutritional and disease stress. Just as nutrition and health status explains the differences in the body proportions of living Maya children, these factors, along with adaptation to climate, may also explain much of the differences between the Neandertal and African hominid samples.

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