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J Hum Evol. 2002 Nov;43(5):621-43.

Vertebrae numbers of the early hominid lumbar spine.

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  • 1Anthropologisches Institut und Museum der Universitaet Zuerich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, 8057 Zuerich, Switzerland.


General doctrine holds that early hominids possessed a long lumbar spine with six segments. This is mainly based on Robinson's (1972) interpretation of a single partial Australopithecus africanus skeleton, Sts 14, from Sterkfontein, South Africa. As its sixth last presacral vertebra exhibits both thoracic and lumbar characteristics, current definitions of lumbar vertebrae and lumbar ribs are discussed in the present study. A re-analysis of its entire preserved vertebral column and comparison with Stw 431, another partial A. africanus skeleton from Sterkfontein, and the Homo erectus skeleton KNM-WT 15000 from Nariokotome, Kenya, did not provide strong evidence for the presence of six lumbar vertebrae in either of these early hominids. Thus, in Sts 14 the sixth last presacral vertebra has on one side a movable rib. In Stw 431, the corresponding vertebra shows indications for a rib facet. In KNM-WT, 15000 the same element is very fragmentary, but the neighbouring vertebrae do not support the view that it is L1. Although in all three fossils the transitional vertebra at which the articular facets change orientation seems to be at Th11, this is equal to a large percentage of modern humans. Indeed, a modal number of five lumbar vertebrae, as in modern humans, is more compatible with evolutionary principles. For example, six lumbar vertebrae would require repetitive shortening and lengthening not only of the lumbar, but also of the entire precaudal spine. Furthermore, six lumbar vertebrae are claimed to be biomechanically advantageous for early hominid bipedalism, yet an explanation is lacking as to why the lumbar region should have shortened in later humans. All this raises doubts about previous conclusions for the presence of six lumbar vertebrae in early hominids. The most parsimonious explanation is that they did not differ from modern humans in the segmentation of the vertebral column.

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