Research at the University of Birmingham has shown that the shape of the human skull has changed significantly over the last 600 years. Results show that modern man has less prominent facial features and a larger cranial capacity than our medieval ancestors.

The team from the University of Birmingham, School of Dentistry took measurements from radiographic films of the skulls, which cover a period of more than 600 years of British history.

The oldest skulls were a group of 30 plague victims, who died between 1348 and 1349 during an epidemic of the Black Death. They were excavated from plague pits near the site of the Royal Mint in London during the 1980s. The second group of 54 skulls was recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545. The final group of films were taken from contemporary records stored in the School of Dentistry.

Extensive measurements of the skulls show that our medieval ancestors had more prominent facial features than modern man, with a noticeably larger lower jaw. Radiographs of the medieval skulls also showed that our cranial vaults have increased in size by more than a centimeter over the last 600 years. This may indicate that our brains are continuing to develop as we use them more in our everyday lives.

Doctor Peter Rock who led the research said: "How we are changing as a species is a fascinating question. The increased intracranial dimensions and high foreheads of the modern group are evidence that brain size has increased over the centuries. The plague skulls are only 30 generations removed from today and the Mary Rose skulls just 22 generations removed, yet the differences are striking."

For more information, or to request a copy of the full paper, contact Ben Hill: Press Office, University of Birmingham. Tel 0121 4145134, 07789 9211163




Lateral cephalometric radiograms were obtained from skulls of three groups of subjects; 30 skulls were from those who died in the Black Death epidemic of 1348-1349. 54 were recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545 and 31 were representative of modern cephalometric values. The skulls were aged sexed and then subjected to a wide-ranging series of cephalometric measurements.

The paper: A cephalometric comparison of skulls from the fourteenth, sixteenth and twentieth centuries: W.P Rock, A.M Sabieha and R.I.W Evans is published in the current edition of the British Journal of Dentistry (Volume 200)

The authors would like to thank the Museum of London for making available the Black Death skulls and the Mary Rose Trust for allowing access to material recovered from the wreck of the ship.