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J Hum Evol. 2003 Feb;44(2):225-54.

Morphological affinities of the Australopithecus afarensis hand on the basis of manual proportions and relative thumb length.

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Institut de Paleontologia M. Crusafont, DB-Unidad Asociada CSIC, Escola Industrial 23, 08201 Sabadell, Spain.


The hands of apes and humans differ considerably with regard to proportions between several bones. Of critical significance is the long thumb relative to other fingers, which is the basis for human-like pad-to-pad precision grip capability, and has been considered by some as evidence of tool-making. The nature and timing of the evolutionary transition from ape-like to human-like manual proportions, however, have remained unclear as a result of the lack of appropriate fossil material. In this article, the manual proportions of Australopithecus afarensis from locality AL 333/333w (Hadar, Ethiopia) are investigated by means of bivariate and multivariate morphometric analyses, in order to test the hypothesis that human-like proportions, including an enhanced thumb/hand relationship, originally evolved as an adaptation to stone tool-making. Although some evidence for human-like manual proportions had been previously proposed for this taxon, conclusive evidence was lacking. Our results indicate that A. afarensis possessed overall manual proportions, including an increased thumb/hand relationship that, contrary to previous reports, is fully human and would have permitted pad-to-pad human-like precision grip capability. We show that these human-like proportions in A. afarensis mainly result from hand shortening, as in modern humans, and that these conclusions are robust enough as to be non-dependent on whether the bones belong to a single individual or not. Since A. afarensis predates the appearance of stone tools in the archeological record, the above-mentioned conclusions permit a confident refutation of the null hypothesis that human-like manual proportions are an adaptation to stone tool-making, and thus alternative explanations must be therefore sought. One hypothesis would consider manipulative behaviors (including tool-use and/or non-lithic tool-making) in early hominines exceeding those reported among extant non-human primates. Alternatively, on the basis of the many adaptations to committed bipedalism in A. afarensis, we propose the hypothesis that once arboreal behaviors became adaptively insignificant and forelimb-dominated locomotor selection pressures were relaxed with the adoption of terrestrial bipedalism, human-like manual proportions could have merely evolved as a result of the complex manipulation selection pressures already present in extant non-human primates. Both hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, and even other factors such as pleiotropy cannot be currently discarded.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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