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Am J Phys Anthropol. 2001 Feb;114(2):146-55.

Variation among early North American crania.

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Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee 37996-0720, USA.


The limited morphometric work on early American crania to date has treated them as a single, temporally defined group. This paper addresses the question of whether there is significant variability among ancient American crania. A sample of 11 crania (Spirit Cave, Wizards Beach, Browns Valley, Pelican Rapids, Prospect, Wet Gravel male, Wet Gravel female, Medicine Crow, Turin, Lime Creek, and Swanson Lake) dating from the early to mid Holocene was available. Some have recent accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dates, while others are dated geologically or archaeologically. All are in excess of 4500 BP, and most are 7000 BP or older. Measurements follow the definitions of Howells [(1973) Cranial variation in man, Cambridge: Harvard University). Some crania are incomplete, but 22 measurements were common to all fossils. Cranial variation was examined by calculating the Mahalanobis distance between each pair of fossils, using a pooled within sample covariance matrix estimated from the data of Howells. The distance relationships among crania suggest the presence of at least three distinct groups: 1) a middle Archaic Plains group (Turin and Medicine Crow), 2) a Paleo/Early Archaic Great Lakes/Plains group (Browns Valley, Pelican Rapids, Lime Creek), and 3) a spatially and temporally heterogeneous group that includes the Great Basin/Pacific Coast (Spirit Cave, Wizards Beach, Prospect) and Nebraska (Wet Gravel specimens and Swanson Lake). These crania were also compared to Howells' worldwide recent sample, which was expanded by including six additional American Indian samples. None of the fossils, except for the Wet Gravel male, shows any particular affinity to recent Native Americans; their greatest similarities are with Europe, Polynesia, or East Asia. Several crania would be atypical in any recent population for which we have data. Browns Valley, Pelican Rapids, and Lime Creek are the most distinctive. They provide evidence for the presence of an early population that bears no similarity to the morphometric pattern of recent American Indians or even to crania of comparable date in other regions of the continent. The heterogeneity among early American crania makes it inadvisable to pool them for purposes of morphometric analysis. Whether this heterogeneity results from different early migrations or one highly differentiated population cannot be established from our data. Our results are inconsistent with hypotheses of an ancestor-descendent relationship between early and late Holocene American populations. They suggest that the pattern of cranial variation is of recent origin, at least in the Plains region.

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