The principal objective of this study is to perform a biological distance analysis of two Asian ethnic groups to better understand environmental factors influencing cranial shape and size. Cranial shape and size are influenced by both epigenetic and genetic factors, resulting in differences in crania over time. Cranial measurements can be used as a proxy for genetic data and to understand epigenetic factors affecting crania. Therefore, craniometrics can be used to determine differences between populations.
Ancient and modern Chinese and Thai skeletal populations were used for this biological distance analysis. The ancient Chinese population is from northern China at Anyang dating to the Shang Dynasty (1600BC-1046BC) while its modern counterpart is located in Hong Kong dating from 1977-1983. Individuals from both populations are thought to have belonged to the Han ethnic group and are possibly biologically related. Both Thai populations are located in northeastern Thailand, known as the Isaan region. The ancient Thai population from the Ban Chiang site is dated through the Pre-metal to Iron Age periods (2000 B.C.- 200 A.D.) while the modern population dates from 1970s to present. Data were collected on crania at 29 anthropologically accepted measurements to explore epigenetic and biological relationships between modern and ancient populations. Data were subjected to multiple multivariate statistical tests to understand causative agents for change and differences between populations.
These results suggest that modern and ancient Thai and Chinese populations have markedly different crania, especially in shape. However, correlated factors could not be identified in this study, primarily due to lack of historical data. Geographical, temporal, and climate variables such as temperature were tested against measures of biological distance with little to no correlation discovered. Interestingly, modern and ancient Chinese populations displayed the closest biological affinity, possibly due to similar environments and lack of genetic changes. Ban Chiang individuals were the most biologically distant from other populations, indicating possible genetic differences not yet understood. These genetic differences could indicate either that Ban Chiang individuals are not recently ancestral to the modern Thai population or a mass migration movement into northeast Thailand had occurred.
These results are interpreted to indicate that environmental factors have played a large role in altering cranial shape in these two ethnically Asian populations since genetic alteration in the areas has not been documented. Environmental factors have caused isometric changes in cranial shape as crania have become distinct from their ancestral counterparts. Cultural changes, such as diet shifts and modernization, are possible causative agents for these changes witnessed in these populations.
The findings of this study contribute to our understanding of human cranial variation for these two Asian groups, and to broader discussions of epigenetic and genetic relationships in the expression of cranial morphology. This research also contributes to the discussions of how biological distance in the crania has been influenced by epigenetic factors and ultimately how the peopling of modern Asia occurred.