Category Archives: Paleoanthropology

Atapuerca 2018


Paleoneurology Lab at Atapuerca, July 2018


Cranial vault thickness in South African Australopiths

In a recent paper, Beaudet and colleagues analyze the cranial vault thickness of StW 578, a partial cranium of Australopithecus not yet assigned to a species. The authors explore the utility of cranial vault thickness and of the organization of the diploe and cortical tables as potential diagnostic criteria for hominin species. For that, they also analyze a comparative sample including other South African Late Pliocene-Early Pleistocene fossils, extant humans, and chimpanzee specimens. Fossils include specimens of Australopithecus and Paranthropus recovered from Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, and Makapansgat sites. Based on cranial landmarks, the authors defined homologous parasagittal and coronal sections on the CT scans, preferentially on the right hemisphere, which is better preserved in StW 578. The thickness of the diploe, the thickness of the inner and outer cortical tables, and the total thickness were measured automatically in various points sampled throughout the length of the sections. The proportion of each layer was computed by dividing the thickness by the surface area calculated between two successive points. Specimens that preserved only the left side were used for qualitative comparison. Results emphasize differences between Australopithecus and Paranthropus. The former genus tends to have thicker vaults, with a larger proportion of the diploic layer, while the latter tends to have thinner vaults, with a larger proportion of the inner and outer tables. The distribution of thickness also differs, as StW 578 and other Australopithecus crania from Sterkfontein display disproportionately thicker frontal and posterosuperior parietal regions, while Paranthropus (SK 46) and extant chimpanzees have thickest regions on cranial superstructures (supraorbital and occipital tori). As the authors suggest, thickening of the cranial vault in frontal and parietal regions needs further investigation, as to unveil a possible correlation between bone thickness and brain anatomy. Moreover, as the increase in thickness is associated with an increase in diploe proportions, variation in this layer might indicate physiological (thermoregulation) or biomechanical differences between Australopithecus and Paranthropus. In sum, cranial vault thickness patterns of StW 578 are equivalent to those of other specimens from Sterkfontein (StW 505 and Sts 71). The presence of a Paranthropus-like pattern in two of the three Mangapansgat specimens further indicates the presence of different morphs or species of Australopithecus in this site. This methodology and results provide a fine base for further studies on the taxonomic significance of the cranial vault thickness. The authors suggest beginning by including more Paranthropus specimens, and by evaluating chronological, geographic, and taxonomic variation.


Sofia Pedro

Pulling faces

Two different papers have been published this month on the evolution of the supraorbital anatomy in humans. The first article is on Neanderthal facial morphology, and it was coordinated by Stephen Wroe, of the FEAR lab. Here a comment on the Daily Mail. The second article, by Ricardo Miguel Godinho and coauthors, links supraorbital morphology and social dynamics, and it was commented in a News and Views by Markus Bastir.

Digital Endocasts

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Colin Groves (1942-2017)

Colin Groves (2017)

Emeritus Professor Colin Groves was an internationally-recognized and respected taxonomist in Mammalogy and Primatology. After completing his PhD dissertation at University College London in 1966 on Gorilla skull variation and taxonomy, Colin was appointed as lecturer at the Australian National University (ANU). Colin was an integral part of the ANU Biological Anthropology Department, welcoming discussions with internationally recognized researchers and undergraduate students alike, always made himself available and believed in an “open-door” policy for teaching. For me, he was an inspirational and influential mentor, teacher, colleague and friend who was an irreplaceable part of the Australian and International Primatology and Anthropology community. An online condolence book has been organised for those wishing to pay their respects.

Alannah Pearson

Hominin biomechanics


Hominin biomechanics

Virtual anatomy and inner structural morphology,
from head to toe
A tribute to Laurent Puymerail

Comptes Rendus Palevol 16 (2017)



FEA, Validity & Sensitivity

fea-validity-smlThe Finite Element Method (FEM) was developed within the framework of Engineering but has become a popular tool in bio-mechanical studies. It is natural that computational bio-mechanics and Finite Element Analysis (FEA) became increasingly promising in fossil studies where there are no examples of some taxa still living. To study the bio-mechanical responses of fossil hominids, modern humans and non-human primates are often used as comparative samples for which there are already known values. Despite this, precisely how accurately computational bio-mechanics compares with physical studies is still not well understood. The biological composition of bone and dentition is hard to replicate in computational terms with the cranium a mixture of trabecular and cortical bone while teeth comprise variable layers of enamel and dentine. The resolution required from Computed Tomography (CT) scans to accurately capture these finer biological compositions is not feasible for the heavy demands on software to analyze such FEA models with flow-effects for the number of specimens that can be included into any single study.

Godinho et al investigated the validity and sensitivity of Finite Element (FE) models using a direct comparison with a human cadaver. Results were particularly affected if the model was simplified by assigning all materials as cortical bone, including dentition and trabecular bone components. Results showed that the real and virtual skull showed no differences in strain magnitude; differences in strain pattern (high or low strain distribution) were only partially different; simplifying the virtual model decreased the strain magnitude; simplifying the virtual model partially affected the strain pattern with the regions near the dentition, particularly the alveolar ridge, most affected.

For bio-mechanical studies, by not simplifying virtual models and attempting to designate dental and bone tissues properly acknowledges the underpinning biology of the cranium while potentially revealing sensitive adaptations of this biological structure. By adopting these changes, new variations between living and fossil humans, that have so-far been obscured by less time-consuming computational methods, could reveal unique adaptational trends that have real significance for human evolution.

Alannah Pearson

Teeth and Ecology


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Blood flow

Carotid canalsThe fossil record offers several possible approaches to study the evolution of the human brain. Besides cerebral size and shape, we can make inferences about cognitive functions and metabolic processes. Analyses of the craniovascular system are required to better understand both aspects. A recent article in the Royal Society Open Science journal adds new evidence into this issue comparing cerebral blood flow rate and endocranial volume in fossil hominids. The metabolic rate of the human brain is tightly related to the cerebral blood flow, which is mainly supplied by internal carotid arteries (ICAs). The authors measured the dimensions of the carotid foramen, the external opening of the carotid canal, in 35 fossil skulls, and calculate the size of the internal carotid arteries lumen. Then, they calculated the blood flow based on the shear stress, arterial lumen radius and blood viscosity (using supporting data from human and rats models). Their results show that the ICAs blood flow rate increases disproportionately in hominids, when scaled against brain volume. The authors then speculate about metabolic rate and its association with greater synaptic activity, cognitive functions, and life-history evolution. The paleoneurological information considered in the article is not much updated, and the sample includes many casts, which reliability is not comparable with original specimens. Also, inferences on cognition or life-history sound probably too much speculative when dealing with a simple carotid canal. Nonetheless, this paper supplies a good perspective in vascular biology, with a clear application in paleoanthropology. The possibility of calculating the cerebral blood flow in fossil specimens is interesting and opens new research opportunities.

Stáňa Eisová


Alannah PearsonNew PhD student in our network! Alannah Pearson is now beginning her project on temporal lobes evolution in human and non-human primates, with a special focus on paleoneurology and functional craniology. She will be supervised by an amazing team of experts, including David Polly (Indiana University) and  Colin Groves, Alison Behie and Katharine Balolia (Australian National University). A short presentation, in her own words: “I was born in Australia in 1985 and I am currently a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra. I completed a Bachelor of Arts in Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology before an Honours year specialising in Biological Anthropology analysing pre-collected craniometric data from populations in India before comparing these to William White Howells’ global craniometric datasets to assess population affinities. I recently completed a Master of Philosophy in Palaeoanthropology using CT of hominoid cranial bones examining inter- and intraspecific shape variation, phylogenetic signal, allometric and non-allometric differences. I also conducted phylogenetic analyses using Neighbour-Joining and Continuous Trait Maximum Likelihood methods. I am interested in the evolution of extant and fossil primate cranial morphology, shape and size differences between taxa. I recently became fascinated with primate cerebral evolution and shape variation with this being the direction of my PhD project. When not studying physical anthropology, I like to write fiction novels and I am currently working toward publication. I also have a keen interest in digital photography, particularly landscape and wildlife photography.” Welcome at the Laboratory of Hominid Paleoneurobiology!

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