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Homo. 2003;53(3):225-34.

Problems with the use of cladistic analysis in palaeoanthropology.

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  • Sterkfontein Research Unit, School of Anatomical Sciences, Medical School, University of the Witwatersrand, 7 Parktown Road, Parktown 2193, Johannesburg, South Africa. d.curnoe@unsw.edu.au


Cladistic analysis is a popular method for reconstructing evolutionary relationships on the human lineage. However, it has limitations and hidden assumptions that are often not considered by palaeoanthropologists. Some researchers who are opposed to its use regard cladistics as the preferred method for taxonomic "splitters" and claim it has lead to a revitalisation of typology. Typology remains a part of human evolutionary studies, regardless of the acceptance or use of cladistics. The assumption/preference for "splitting" over "lumping" in cladistics (alpha) taxonomy and the general failure to evaluate (post-hoc) such taxonomies have served to reinforce this assertion. Researchers have also adopted a number of practices that are logically untenable or introduce considerable error. The evolutionary trend of human encephalisation, apparently isometric with body size, and concurrent reduction in the gut and masticatory apparatus, suggests continuous cladistic characters are biased by problems of body size. The method suffers a logical weakness, or circularity, leading to bias when characters with multiple states are used. Coding of such characters can only be done using prior criteria, and this is usually done using an existing phylogenetic scheme. Another problem with coding character states is the handling of variation within species. While this form of variation is usually ignored by palaeoanthropologists, when characters are recognised as varying, their treatment as a separate state adds considerable error to cladograms. The genetic proximity of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas has important implications for cladistic analyses. It is argued that chimpanzees and gorillas should be treated as ingroup taxa and an alternative outgroup such as orangutans should be used, or an (hypothetical) ancestral body plan developed. Making chimpanzees and gorillas ingroup taxa would considerably enhance the biological utility of anthropological cladograms. All published human cladograms fail to meet standard quality criteria indicating that none of them may be considered reliable. The continuing uncertainty over the number and composition of fossil human species is the largest single source of error for cladistics and human phylogenetic reconstruction.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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