Geometric morphometrics of the human cervical vertebrae: sexual and population variations

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This study aims to carry out the first geometric morphometric analysis of the 3D size and shape of the full series of cervical vertebrae delving into variability related to sex and population background. For this reason, we analyzed the cervical vertebrae of both males and females belonging to Europeans, Africans, and Greenland Inuit. We 3D-scanned a total of 219 cervical vertebrae of males and females of three different modern human populations (European, African, and Inuit). A minimum of 72 landmarks and curve semilandmarks were positioned in each of the 3D vertebral models. Landmark configurations were analyzed following the standards of 3D Geometric Morphometrics to test for size and shape differences related to sex or population variation. Results show that male cervical vertebrae are consistently larger than in females while no regular shape differences are observed between males and females in any of the populations. Sex differences in cervical lordosis are thus not supported at the skeletal level of the 3D shape. On the other hand, there is no evidence for population-specific differences in size while shape does vary considerably, possibly also in relation to eco-geographic factors of overall trunk shape. Cervical vertebrae in cold-adapted Inuit were consistently shorter than in Europeans and Africans. The cervical spine may show a different pattern than the thoracic and lumbar spine, which might be related to stronger integration with the cranium, head mobility, and soft-tissue dependence. Our findings suggest that morpho-functional interpretations of the cervical spine based on vertebral skeletal morphology requires caution.