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Comparative and experimental investigations of cranial robusticity in mid-Pleistocene hominins

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Extremely thick cranial vaults have been noted as a diagnostic characteristic of Homo erectus since the first fossil of the species was identified, but potential mechanisms underlying this seemingly unique

Extremely thick cranial vaults have been noted as a diagnostic characteristic of Homo erectus since the first fossil of the species was identified, but potential mechanisms underlying this seemingly unique trait have not been rigorously investigated. Cranial vault thickness (CVT) is not a monolithic trait, and the responsiveness of its layers to environmental stimuli is unknown. Identifying factors that affect CVT would be exceedingly valuable in teasing apart potential contributors to thick vaults in the Pleistocene. Four hypotheses were tested using CT scans of skulls of more than 1100 human and non-human primates. Data on total frontal, parietal, and occipital bone thickness and bone composition were collected to test the hypotheses: H1. CVT is an allometric consequence of brain or body size. H2. Thick cranial vaults are a response to long, low cranial vault shape. H3. High masticatory stress causes localized thickening of cranial vaults. H4. Activity-mediated systemic hormone levels affect CVT. Traditional comparative methods were used to identify features that covary with CVT across primates to establish behavior patterns that might correlate with thick cranial vaults. Secondly, novel experimental manipulation of a model organism, Mus musculus, was used to evaluate the relative plasticity of CVT. Finally, measures of CVT in fossil hominins were described and discussed in light of the extant comparative and experimental results. This dissertation reveals previously unknown variation among extant primates and humans and illustrates that Homo erectus is not entirely unique among primates in its CVT. The research suggests that it is very difficult to make a mouse grow a thick head, although it can be genetically programmed to have one. The project also identifies a possible hominin synapomorphy: high diploë ratios compared to non-human primates. It also found that extant humans differ from non-human primates in overall pattern of which cranial vault bones are thickest. What this project was unable to do was definitively provide an explanation for why and how Homo erectus grew thick skulls. Caution is required when using CVT as a diagnostic trait for Homo erectus, as the results presented here underscore the complexity inherent in its evolution and development.

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Date Created
  • 2012

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Nonsocial influences on canine size in anthropoid primates

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Early hominins present an unusual pattern of sexual dimorphism. On one hand, the canine teeth of these species are weakly size-dimorphic, vertically short, and nonhoning, suggesting a social system characterized

Early hominins present an unusual pattern of sexual dimorphism. On one hand, the canine teeth of these species are weakly size-dimorphic, vertically short, and nonhoning, suggesting a social system characterized by infrequent, low-intensity intermale competition and monogamous pair-bonding. On the other hand, marked size variation in skeletal remains attributed to species of Australopithecus is thought to reflect strong body-mass dimorphism, which is more consistent with intense intermale competition. Reconciling these conflicting signals and understanding their adaptive significance is a major goal of paleoanthropology. This dissertation research contributes to this objective by investigating factors that may constrain or reduce canine height in extant anthropoid primates. Two hypotheses regarding the relationship between canine height and other elements of the masticatory system were tested using phylogenetic comparative methods. According to the first hypothesis, canine reduction is a pleiotropic by-product of changes in the sizes of other components of the dentition. With respect to canine height, the results of this study fail to support this idea. There is limited evidence for a relationship between basal canine crown dimensions and incisor and postcanine size, but significant interspecific correlations between these variables are not strong and are restricted primarily to the female maxillary dentition. These results indicate that if pleiotropy influences canine size, then its effects are weak. The second hypothesis proposes that canine reduction is a consequence of selection for increased jaw-muscle leverage. This hypothesis receives some support: there is a clear inverse relationship between canine height and the leverage of the masseter muscle in male anthropoids. Females do not exhibit this association due to the fact that dimorphism in muscle leverage is weak or absent in most anthropoid species; in other words, female muscle leverage tracks male muscle leverage, which is linked to canine height. Leverage of the temporalis muscle is not correlated with canine height in either sex. Two specimens of the 3.0-3.7-million-year-old hominin Australopithecus afarensis fall at or beyond the upper end of the great ape range of variation in masseter leverage, which is consistent with the idea that hominin canine evolution was influenced by selection for increased jaw-muscle leverage.

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Date Created
  • 2010

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Locomotor function and the evolution of the primate pelvis

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The bony pelvis is a pivotal component of the locomotor system, as it links the hindlimb with the trunk and serves as anchorage for the primary propulsive musculature. Its shape

The bony pelvis is a pivotal component of the locomotor system, as it links the hindlimb with the trunk and serves as anchorage for the primary propulsive musculature. Its shape is therefore expected to be adapted to the biomechanical demands of habitual locomotor behavior. However, because the relationship between locomotor mechanics and pelvic morphology is not well understood, the adaptive significance of particular pelvic traits and overall pelvic shape remains unclear. This study used an integrative, dual approach to elucidate the relationship between form and function in the primate pelvis. A biomechanical cylinder model of pelvic stress resistance was tested using in vitro strain analysis of monkey and ape cadaver specimens. These results were used to refine adaptive hypotheses relating pelvic form to locomotor mechanics. Hypotheses of adaptation were then tested via univariate and geometric morphometric methods using a taxonomically broad, comparative sample of 67 primate taxa. These results suggest that the pelvis exhibits some iliac and ischial adaptations to stress resistance that are associated with the biomechanical demands of habitual locomotor loading and of body size. The ilium and ischium exhibit relatively low levels of strain during experimental loading as well as adaptations that increase strength. The pubis exhibits relatively high strains during loading and does not vary as predicted with locomotion. This integrated study clarifies the relationship between strain and adaptation; these results support the hypothesis that bones adapted to stress resistance exhibit low strains during typical loading. In general, the cylinder model of pelvic biomechanics is unsupported. While the predictions of loading regimes were generally rejected, the inability of these methods to test the possible occurrence of overlapping loading regimes precludes outright rejection of the cylinder model. However, the lack of support for predicted global responses to applied loading regimes suggests that pelvic stress resistance may be better explained by a model that accounts for local, functional subunits of pelvic structure. The coalescence of a localized model of pelvic biomechanics and comparative morphometrics has great potential to shed light on the evolution of the complex, multi-functional structure of the pelvis.

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Date Created
  • 2010