Study: Cherokee's Struggles Visible in Their Skulls

Researchers review changes in skulls' measurements during stressful times
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 17, 2014 8:20 AM CDT
Study: Cherokee's Struggles Visible in Their Skulls
Finley's 1827 map of Tennessee.   (Wikimedia Commons)

It turns out the Trail of Tears didn't just affect the Cherokee people's spirits. A new study by North Carolina State University and University of Tennessee researchers has found that their struggles actually reshaped their skulls. The research was reliant on research done long before the present day, by Franz Boas, who in the late 19th century measured many Native Americans' cranial length and breadth, including those of eastern and western bands of Cherokee. The researchers set out to organize and analyze that data: They reviewed only those measurements belonging to adults, and arranged them by birth year, with the span of time running from 1783 to 1874. As an NCSU press release explains, in using that year of birth, researchers were able to flag "stressors" the individual might have encountered: 1838's Trail of Tears, warfare between tribes, outbreaks of disease, and the Civil War.

Their conclusion, as published in the Annals of Human Biology: Head length (that is, front-to-back measurement of the skull) shortened over time among both bands. Among the eastern band of Cherokee there was a particularly aggressive decline for females in the late 1830s, which syncs with the timing of the Trail of Tears; the researchers note the eastern band tried to avoid evacuation by heading into the Smoky Mountains. As far as breadth, only the western band showed a lessening, in the early 1860s as the Civil War set in. Says a co-author, "When times are tough, people have less access to adequate nutrition and are at greater risk of disease. This study demonstrates the impact that those difficult times had on the physical growth of the Cherokee people." (More discoveries stories.)

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