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17.5: Comparative Skeletal Anatomy

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    Over the last six to seven million years, humans have been evolving to become more efficient at walking around on two limbs (bipedal locomotion), resulting in skeletal anatomy that is divergent from our closest living relative, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). These differences can be seen in both the axial and appendicular skeletons. In the axial skeleton, for example, the foramen magnum in humans is more anteriorly positioned than that of chimpanzees, which places the vertebral column directly underneath the skull as opposed to behind it as it is in chimpanzees and other quadrupedal mammals. Chimpanzees also do not have an S-shaped curvature to their vertebral column; they simply retain the gentle primary kyphosis developed during the fetal period. Furthermore, they actually have one fewer lumbar vertebrae compared to humans, which results in a stiffer lower back.

    As far as differences in the appendicular skeleton are concerned, the shape of the pelvic girdle is dramatically different in humans, where the ilium flares out laterally compared to the posterior flare of the ilium in chimpanzees. This reorganization of the pelvis has changed the function of two muscles, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, from hip extensors in chimpanzees to hip abductors in humans. The angle of the femoral diaphysis is more oblique in humans because one of the demands of efficient bipedal locomotion is that humans require their knees to remain under their center of mass when they are standing on one limb during walking; in chimpanzees, the knees are not moved under their center of mass, so the femoral diaphysis is nearly vertical in orientation from the hip to the knee joint. In addition, humans have oversized hip and knee joints for their body size compared to chimpanzees, likely because they require more surface area to keep from damaging joint surfaces when they support their entire body mass on a single limb during walking. Chimpanzees spend more time engaging in climbing behavior than humans do, and they are known to have glenoid fossae and scapulae that are oriented more superiorly than humans, which allows them to support their body weight better on their upper limbs than humans can. Finally, the phalanges of the hand and foot are less anteroposteriorly curved in humans than they are in chimpanzees, and instead of having an opposable big toe like chimpanzees, humans have a big toe that is in line with the other digits and more efficient for bipedal locomotion.

    Review Questions

    • Which bony features of the pelvic girdle are relevant to estimating age and/or sex in forensic and bioarchaeological contexts? Give specific examples of how these features differ among sexes.
    • What is the mechanistic difference between endochondral and intramembranous bone formation?
    • Which bones articulate with the calcaneus? Which bones articulate with the humerus?
    • Which elements of the skeleton belong to the axial skeleton versus the appendicular skeleton?
    • Describe the axial and appendicular skeletal differences between humans and chimpanzees.

    This page titled 17.5: Comparative Skeletal Anatomy is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Beth Shook, Katie Nelson, Kelsie Aguilera, & Lara Braff, Eds. (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.