Cephalic index is the ratio of the maximum width of the head multiplied by 100 divided by its maximum length (i.e., in the horizontal plane, or front to back).
The index was widely used by anthropologists in the early twentieth century to categorize human populations, and by Carleton S. Coon in the 1960s. Today it is mainly used to describe individuals' appearances and for estimating the age of fetuses for legal and obstetrical reasons.
The index is used to categorize animals, especially dogs and cats.
Cephalic index in human anthropology
The cephalic index was defined by Swedish professor of anatomy Anders Retzius (1796–1860) and first used in physical anthropology to classify ancient human remains found in Europe. The theory became closely associated with the development of racial anthropology in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when prehistorians attempted to use ancient remains to model population movements in terms of racial categories.
Human populations were characterized as either dolichocephalic (long headed), mesaticephalic (moderate headed), or brachycephalic (broad headed).
The usefulness of the cephalic index was questioned by Giuseppe Sergi, who argued that cranial morphology provided a better means to model racial ancestry. However Franz Boas studied the children of immigrants to the United States in 1910 to 1912, noting that the children's cephalic index differed significantly from their parents', implying that local environmental conditions had a significant impact on the development of head shape.
Boas argued that if craniofacial features were so malleable in a single generation, then the cephalic index was of little use for defining race and mapping ancestral populations. Scholars such as Earnest A. Hooton continued to argue that both environment and heredity were involved. Boas did not himself claim it was totally plastic.
In 2002, a paper by Sparks and Jantz re-evaluated some of Boas' original data using new statistical techniques and concluded that there was a "relatively high genetic component" of head shape. Ralph Holloway of Columbia University argues that the new research raises questions about whether the variations in skull shape have "adaptive meaning and whether, in fact, normalizing selection might be at work on the trait, where both extremes, hyperdolichocephaly and hyperbrachycephaly, are at a slight selective disadvantage."
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