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Am J Phys Anthropol. 1999 Nov;110(3):365-77.

Ontogeny and phylogeny of femoro-tibial characters in humans and hominid fossils: functional influence and genetic determinism.

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U.R.A.1137 C.N.R.S., Laboratoire d'Anatomie Comparée, M.N.H.N., 75005 Paris, France.


Three different human femoro-tibial characters are selected as functionally relevant and derived hominid characters: femoral bicondylar angle, shape of the femoral distal epiphysis, and the tibial insertion of the lateral meniscus. The timing and mode of formation of these characters are investigated during human ontogeny and are shown to differ considerably. The available hominid fossils (Australopithecus afarensis and early Homo) are interpreted in the light of this ontogenetic analysis with the conclusion that, during hominid evolution, different modes of selection of these features must have occurred. In modern humans, the femoral bicondylar angle proves to be an epigenetic functional feature, which develops during early childhood growth. It is present in all australopithecines and we suggest that it developed following a change in their locomotor behavior and not upon a genomic change: the early practice of bipedal walking, with adducted knee joints, in the locomotor repertoire of infant australopithecines, was sufficient to promote this angle. Later in hominid evolution, the knee joint evolved from having a single insertion of the lateral meniscus on the tibia to a double one. While Australopithecus afarensis exhibits a single insertion, early Homo clearly exhibits a double insertion of the lateral meniscus on the tibia. The double insertion restricts the mobility of the meniscus on the tibial plateau, indicating a habitual practice of full extension movements of the knee joint. Among modern humans, the posterior insertion of the lateral meniscus appears early in fetal life. Consequently in early Homo, this new selected feature developed directly as a result of a genomic change. The derived shape of human distal femoral epiphysis includes a prominence of the lateral lip of the femoral trochlea, an elliptical profile of the lateral condyle, and an anteroposterior lengthening of the epiphysis. Analysis of human fetal and neonatal distal epiphyses shows that the prominence of the lateral lip of the trochlea arises before any use, and thus appears to be genetically determined. However, the postnatal development of this joint shows that this feature is also modified epigenetically by use. It is argued that the hominid femoro-patellar joint would have been reshaped following the process of genetic assimilation (Waddington [1942] Nature 3811:563-565). The prominence of the lateral lip of the femoral trochlea was probably selected following a two-staged process-first epigenetic, then genetic. Far from being a Lamarckian explanation, this concept applies precisely to adaptive characters that are induced by an external stimulus during a single lifetime and are replaced through natural selection by genetically based equivalent characters. The nature of the structures involved in the studied features is shown to be an important parameter determining their mode of development and selection.

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