Secular changes refer to short-term biological changes ostensibly due to environmental factors. Two well-documented secular trends in many populations are earlier age of menarche and increasing stature. This study synthesizes data on maximum clavicle length and fusion of the medial epiphysis in 1840–1980 American birth cohorts to provide a comprehensive assessment of developmental and morphological change in the clavicle.
Clavicles from the Hamann-Todd Human Osteological Collection (n = 354), McKern and Stewart Korean War males (n = 341), Forensic Anthropology Data Bank (n = 1,239), and the McCormick Clavicle Collection (n = 1,137) were used in the analysis. Transition analysis was used to evaluate fusion of the medial epiphysis (scored as unfused, fusing, or fused). Several statistical treatments were used to assess fluctuations in maximum clavicle length. First, Durbin-Watson tests were used to evaluate autocorrelation, and a local regression (LOESS) was used to identify visual shifts in the regression slope. Next, piecewise regression was used to fit linear regression models before and after the estimated breakpoints. Multiple starting parameters were tested in the range determined to contain the breakpoint, and the model with the smallest mean squared error was chosen as the best fit. The parameters from the best-fit models were then used to derive the piecewise models, which were compared with the initial simple linear regression models to determine which model provided the best fit for the secular change data.
The epiphyseal union data indicate a decline in the age at onset of fusion since the early twentieth century. Fusion commences approximately four years earlier in mid- to late twentieth-century birth cohorts than in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century birth cohorts. However, fusion is completed at roughly the same age across cohorts. The most significant decline in age at onset of epiphyseal union appears to have occurred since the mid-twentieth century. LOESS plots show a breakpoint in the clavicle length data around the mid-twentieth century in both sexes, and piecewise regression models indicate a significant decrease in clavicle length in the American population after 1940. The piecewise model provides a slightly better fit than the simple linear model. Since the model standard error is not substantially different from the piecewise model, an argument could be made to select the less complex linear model. However, we chose the piecewise model to detect changes in clavicle length that are overfitted with a linear model.
The decrease in maximum clavicle length is in line with a documented narrowing of the American skeletal form, as shown by analyses of cranial and facial breadth and bi-iliac breadth of the pelvis. Environmental influences on skeletal form include increases in body mass index, health improvements, improved socioeconomic status, and elimination of infectious diseases. Secular changes in bony dimensions and skeletal maturation stipulate that medical and forensic standards used to deduce information about growth, health, and biological traits must be derived from modern populations.