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Was the last common ancestor aping a chimp or just monkeying around?

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Objectives: One of the most contentious issues in paleoanthropology is the nature of the last common ancestor of humans and our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos (panins). The numerical composition of the vertebral column has featured prominently, with multiple models predicting distinct patterns of evolution and contexts from which bipedalism evolved. Here, we study total numbers of vertebrae from a large sample of hominoids to quantify variation in and patterns of regional and total numbers of vertebrae in hominoids. Materials and methods: We compile and study a large sample (N = 893) of hominoid vertebral formulae (numbers of cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, caudal segments in each specimen) and analyze full vertebral formulae, total numbers of vertebrae, and super-regional numbers of vertebrae: presacral (cervical, thoracic, lumbar) vertebrae and sacrococcygeal vertebrae. We quantify within- and between-taxon variation using heterogeneity and similarity measures derived from population genetics. Results: We find that humans are most similar to African apes in total and super-regional numbers of vertebrae. Additionally, our analyses demonstrate that selection for bipedalism reduced variation in numbers of vertebrae relative to other hominoids. Discussion: The only proposed ancestral vertebral configuration for the last common ancestor of hominins and panins that is consistent with our results is the modal formula demonstrated by chimpanzees and bonobos (7 cervical-13 thoracic-4 lumbar-6 sacral-3 coccygeal). Hox gene expression boundaries suggest that a rostral shift in Hox10/Hox11-mediated complexes could produce the human modal formula from the proposal ancestral and panin modal formula.
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Australopithecus fossils were regularly interpreted during the late 20th century in a framework that used living African apes, especially chimpanzees, as proxies for the immediate ancestors of the human clade. Such projection is now largely nullified by the discovery of Ardipithecus. In the context of accumulating evidence from genetics, developmental biology, anatomy, ecology, biogeography, and geology, Ardipithecus alters perspectives on how our earliest hominid ancestors--and our closest living relatives--evolved.
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Genomic comparisons have established the chimpanzee and bonobo as our closest living relatives. However, the intricacies of gene regulation and expression caution against the use of these extant apes in deducing the anatomical structure of the last common ancestor that we shared with them. Evidence for this structure must therefore be sought from the fossil record. Until now, that record has provided few relevant data because available fossils were too recent or too incomplete. Evidence from Ardipithecus ramidus now suggests that the last common ancestor lacked the hand, foot, pelvic, vertebral, and limb structures and proportions specialized for suspension, vertical climbing, and knuckle-walking among extant African apes. If this hypothesis is correct, each extant African ape genus must have independently acquired these specializations from more generalized ancestors who still practiced careful arboreal climbing and bridging. African apes and hominids acquired advanced orthogrady in parallel. Hominoid spinal invagination is an embryogenetic mechanism that reoriented the shoulder girdle more laterally. It was unaccompanied by substantial lumbar spine abbreviation, an adaptation restricted to vertical climbing and/or suspension. The specialized locomotor anatomies and behaviors of chimpanzees and gorillas therefore constitute poor models for the origin and evolution of human bipedality.
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Despite decades of debate, it remains unclear whether human bipedalism evolved from a terrestrial knuckle-walking ancestor or from a more generalized, arboreal ape ancestor. Proponents of the knuckle-walking hypothesis focused on the wrist and hand to find morphological evidence of this behavior in the human fossil record. These studies, however, have not examined variation or development of purported knuckle-walking features in apes or other primates, data that are critical to resolution of this long-standing debate. Here we present novel data on the frequency and development of putative knuckle-walking features of the wrist in apes and monkeys. We use these data to test the hypothesis that all knuckle-walking apes share similar anatomical features and that these features can be used to reliably infer locomotor behavior in our extinct ancestors. Contrary to previous expectations, features long-assumed to indicate knuckle-walking behavior are not found in all African apes, show different developmental patterns across species, and are found in nonknuckle-walking primates as well. However, variation among African ape wrist morphology can be clearly explained if we accept the likely independent evolution of 2 fundamentally different biomechanical modes of knuckle-walking: an extended wrist posture in an arboreal environment (Pan) versus a neutral, columnar hand posture in a terrestrial environment (Gorilla). The presence of purported knuckle-walking features in the hominin wrist can thus be viewed as evidence of arboreality, not terrestriality, and provide evidence that human bipedalism evolved from a more arboreal ancestor occupying the ecological niche common to all living apes.
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We describe a partial skeleton with facial cranium of Pierolapithecus catalaunicus gen. et sp. nov., a new Middle Miocene (12.5 to 13 million years ago) ape from Barranc de Can Vila 1 (Barcelona, Spain). It is the first known individual of this age that combines well-preserved cranial, dental, and postcranial material. The thorax, lumbar region, and wrist provide evidence of modern ape–like orthograde body design, and the facial morphology includes the basic derived great ape features. The new skeleton reveals that early great apes retained primitive monkeylike characters associated with a derived body structure that permits upright postures of the trunk. Pierolapithecus, hence, does not fit the theoretical model that predicts that all characters shared by extant great apes were present in their last common ancestor, but instead points to a large amount of homoplasy in ape evolution. The overall pattern suggests that Pierolapithecus is probably close to the last common ancestor of great apes and humans.
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With the discovery of Ardipithecus, Orrorin and Sahelanthropus, our knowledge of hominid evolution before the emergence of Pliocene species of Australopithecus has significantly increased, extending the hominid fossil record back to at least 6 million years (Myr) ago. However, because of the dearth of fossil hominoid remains in sub-Saharan Africa spanning the period 12-7 Myr ago, nothing is known of the actual timing and mode of divergence of the African ape and hominid lineages. Most genomic-based studies suggest a late divergence date-5-6 Myr ago and 6-8 Myr ago for the human-chimp and human-gorilla splits, respectively-and some palaeontological and molecular analyses hypothesize a Eurasian origin of the African ape and hominid clade. We report here the discovery and recognition of a new species of great ape, Chororapithecus abyssinicus, from the 10-10.5-Myr-old deposits of the Chorora Formation at the southern margin of the Afar rift. To the best of our knowledge, these are the first fossils of a large-bodied Miocene ape from the African continent north of Kenya. They exhibit a gorilla-sized dentition that combines distinct shearing crests with thick enamel on its 'functional' side cusps. Visualization of the enamel-dentine junction by micro-computed tomography reveals shearing crest features that partly resemble the modern gorilla condition. These features represent genetically based structural modifications probably associated with an initial adaptation to a comparatively fibrous diet. The relatively flat cuspal enamel-dentine junction and thick enamel, however, suggest a concurrent adaptation to hard and/or abrasive food items. The combined evidence suggests that Chororapithecus may be a basal member of the gorilla clade, and that the latter exhibited some amount of adaptive and phyletic diversity at around 10-11 Myr ago.
Article
Ever since Tyson (1699), anatomists have noted and compared differences in the regional numbers of vertebrae among humans and other hominoids. Subsequent workers interpreted these differences in phylogenetic, functional, and behavioral frameworks and speculated on the history of vertebral numbers during human evolution. Even in a modern phylogenetic framework and with greatly expanded sample sizes of hominoid species, researchers' conclusions vary drastically, positing that hominins evolved from either a "long-backed" (numerically long lumbar column) or a "short-backed" (numerically short lumbar column) ancestor. We show that these disparate interpretations are due in part to the use of different criteria for what defines a lumbar vertebra, but argue that, regardless of which lumbar definition is used, hominins are similar to their great ape relatives in possessing a short trunk, a rare occurrence in mammals and one that defines the clade Hominoidea. Furthermore, we address the recent claim that the early hominin thoracolumbar configuration is not distinct from that of modern humans and conclude that early hominins show evidence of "cranial shifting," which might explain the anomalous morphology of several early hominin fossils. Finally, we evaluate the competing hypotheses on numbers of vertebrae and argue that the current data support a hominin ancestor with an African ape-like short trunk and lower back. Am J Phys Anthropol 159:S19-S36, 2016. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Article
The evolution of knuckle-walking has profound implications for our understanding of the emergence of bipedalism. The modern debate surrounding its evolution is concerned with whether or not it is homologous in chimpanzees and gorillas. Here, this problem is approached using the methods of morphological integration to test hypotheses of patterns and magnitudes of integration in the third manual ray and capitate. If knuckle-walking morphologies are highly integrated and evolve in a correlated bundle (i.e., comprising a functional complex), it seems reasonable that they could have been recruited independently relatively easily in gorillas and chimpanzees, thus increasing the likelihood of homoplasy. If, however, there is no evidence for a knuckle-walking complex, then it seems less likely that chimpanzees and gorillas would have evolved knuckle-walking independently. Results indicate that chimpanzees and gorillas are not characterized by high magnitudes of integration or unique patterns of integration that distinguish them from non-knuckle-walking taxa. This does not support the hypothesis of a knuckle-walking complex, nor does it support the contention that knuckle-walking could have been easily evolved independently in chimpanzees and gorillas. Implications for trait analysis and the evolution of bipedalism are discussed, as are recent analyses supporting the independent origins of knuckle-walking.
Article
The partial skeleton of Pierolapithecus, which provides the oldest unequivocal evidence of orthogrady, together with the recently described phalanges from Paşalar most likely attributable to Griphopithecus, provide a unique opportunity for understanding the changes in hand anatomy during the pronogrady/orthogrady transition in hominoid evolution. In this paper, we describe the Pierolapithecus hand phalanges and compare their morphology and proportions with those of other Miocene apes in order to make paleobiological inferences about locomotor evolution. In particular, we investigate the orthograde/pronograde evolutionary transition in order to test whether the acquisition of vertical climbing and suspension were decoupled during evolution. Our results indicate that the manual phalanges of Miocene apes are much more similar to one another than to living apes. In particular, Miocene apes retain primitive features related to powerful-grasping palmigrady on the basal portion, the shaft, and the trochlea of the proximal phalanges. These features suggest that above-branch quadrupedalism, inherited from stem hominoids, constituted a significant component of the locomotor repertories of different hominoid lineages at least until the late Miocene. Nonetheless, despite their striking morphological similarities, several Miocene apes do significantly differ in phalangeal curvature and/or elongation. Hispanopithecus most clearly departs by displaying markedly-curved and elongated phalanges, similar to those in the most suspensory of the extant apes (hylobatids and orangutans). This feature agrees with several others that indicate orang-like suspensory capabilities. The remaining Miocene apes, on the contrary, display low to moderate phalangeal curvature, and short to moderately-elongated phalanges, which are indicative of the lack of suspensory adaptations. As such, the transition from a pronograde towards an orthograde body plan, as far as this particular anatomical region is concerned, is reflected only in somewhat more elongated phalanges, which may be functionally related to enhanced vertical-climbing capabilities. Our results therefore agree with the view that hominoid locomotor evolution largely took place in a mosaic fashion: just as taillessness antedated the acquisition of an orthograde body plan, the emergence of the latter--being apparently related only to vertical climbing--also preceded the acquisition of suspensory adaptations, as well as the loss of primitively-retained, palmigrady-related features.
Article
Phalangeal curvature has frequently been used as a proxy indicator of fossil hominoid and hominin positional behavior and locomotor adaptations, both independently and within the context of broader discussions of the postcranium as a whole. This study used high-resolution polynomial curve fitting (HR-PCF) to measure the shaft curvature of fragmentary proximal phalanges that have previously been excluded from analyses of phalangeal curvature owing to design limitations of existing methods. In doing so, the available sample of fossil specimens was increased substantially, making it possible to test prevailing locomotor hypotheses for many taxa with new specimens. The results generated from the HR-PCF analysis of extant primate manual and pedal phalangeal samples suggest that, although capable of identifying suspensory hominoids with some degree of accuracy, phalangeal curvature values reported for extant terrestrial and arboreal quadrupeds overlap considerably. Consequently, it is difficult to reliably predict the locomotor adaptations for fossil taxa with phalangeal curvatures similar to these groups, although the curvature values reported for most taxa were broadly consistent with existing locomotor hypotheses. Only the curvature values reported for Pierolapithecus, which are most similar to those of suspensory hominoids, are inconsistent with previously published locomotor hypotheses. Likewise, although not inconsistent with bipedality, curvature values reported for Australopithecus confirm earlier conclusions that, despite a general reduction in phalangeal length relative to Pan, these taxa have similar and overlapping ranges of phalangeal curvature.
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