Australopithecus afarensis and Apes: One from the Archives

I’m currently trying to get through a rather lengthy book – which I will be reviewing in a later post – so in the meantime here is one from the archives… I wrote it back in April of 2005 and think I would write it somewhat differently today. I’ve toyed with doing a similar post on the post-crania …
One of the most aggravating things one can hear, if one has any training in paleoanthropology, is that the australopithicines were nothing but glorified apes. So let’s study the issue (hey, I have to justify the name of this blog, okay! Which means more hominids.) The first set of pictures below is a frontal view of A. afarensis, a chimp, an orang and a gorilla.

The first thing you witll notice is how robust the apes are. There are strong brow ridges, in the case of orang and gorilla there are large crests. Notice also the size of the canines in the three apes. The roots of the canines form canine juga which are very pronounced in the apes, less so in A. afarensis. The canine juga fade into anterior pillars. Overall, there are a lot of features related to the size of the teeth and the need for for muscles to work the teeth. However, the anterior pillars, canine juga and large canines are less apparent in A. Afarensis. Note also that in A. afarensis the zygomatics (the cheekbones) start much higher up than in apes. One other thing deserves notice. You will note in A. afarensis that you can see part of the brain case (this is an artifact of photography in the chimp picture). A. Afarensis has an encephalization quotient (a measure of relative brain size) of around 3.1 compared to 2.6 in chimps. Basically this is the beginning of the cranial expansion characteristic of hominid evolution.
All pictures: Top left A. afarensis Top right: P. troglodytes. Bottom left: P. pygmaeus Bottom right: G. gorilla
In lateral view quite a few differences become apparent. First, note the steeper line running from the (reduced) supraorbital torus to the top of the skull in A. afarensis. In chimps it is more rounded. In orangs and gorillas it is occupied by a massive saggital crest. Note, also, how robust the supraorbital torus is in chimps, orangs and gorillas. It is somewhat reduced in A. afarensis. Note againe that the zygomatics start higher up on the cheeks than in the apes. The apes have pronounced midfacial prognathism (snout sticking out) – A. afarensis is prognathic but not to the same degree. We are starting to see the reduction in prognathism characteristic of Homo sapiens. You can also see the large canines and canine juga in the apes. Towards the rear of the A. afarensis skull, where the zygomatic (cheekbone) joins the back of the skull you can see a small nuchal crest starting (actually a compound temporonuchal crest but lets not complicate things). The nuchal crest, as well as the sagital crest in orangs and gorillas, are areas of muscle attachment. Basically, the larger the crest the larger the muscle that attached to it. The nuchal area (basically the back area underneath the skull) is long and steep in A. afarensis. The ear (external auditory meatus) is similar in all four species. Finally, the ascending ramus of the mandible is wide and tall in all four species. This, along with the sagital and nuchal crests, as well as the anterior pillars are adaptations for large chewing forces.
In basilar view, the first thing to notice is how long, straight and boxy looking the dental arcade is an chimps and gorillas (unfortunately I could not find a basilar view of an orang without the mandible). In A. afarensis the dental arcade is somewhat rounded. Note there is a canine diastema (gap between the second incisor and canine) in A. afarensis and the apes. This is reduced in A. afarensis. Although you can’t see it to well, A. afarensis has the beginnings of a bicuspid premolar. Apes don’t. Also note that the incisors are more similar in size in A. afarensis (although not as much as in humans. The mandibular fossa (the area where the condyles of the mandible articulate with the skull – see the orang skull with attached manible) is flat in apes but has the begginings of human morphology. Finally, the foramen magnum (where the spinal cord enters the skull) is placed more underneath the skull in A. afarensis. Whereas it is not nearly so in apes. This is a trait characteristic of bipedal locomotion.
Note: I couldn’t find a picture of a basilar view of the Orang skull that didn’t include the mandible.
Basically, what we have in A. afarensis is a perfect transitional fossil. Although, really there where several transitional fossils between apes and humans (A better way of saying it is that there is a continua of species leading from a common ancestor, between chimps and humans, to humans). I think it is a common misunderstanding that there is only one transitional fossil between apes and humans. That being the case, you can see a continua of species starting from, say, Ardipithicus ramidus and running through the various australopithicines (leaving the robust forms aside for the moment) to early homo and from there to anatomically modern humans. A. afarensis is one of these transitional species and is definitely not an ape.

8 Responses

  1. Nice to see this post again.
    With respect to the super-orbital torus, I find it ironical that descendants of afarensis would soon be knapping flint without safety goggles – an occupation for which a robust supra-orbital torus would seem an advantage.
    (A line I enjoy using when safety glasses are mentioned goes something like this: ‘Safety glasses! I don’t need no stinkin’ safety glasses! My ancestors knapped flint without safety glasses for two and a half million years!’ Of course I always were safety glasses when needed, being fond of my eyes.)

  2. wait a sec…aren’t human beings classified as “apes”?
    shouldn’t you actually be saying afarensis “is definitely not a chimp?”

  3. (sorry about the split post)
    …and take a look here…I am by no means an expert but to my untrained eye, the bonobo skull pictured here
    looks a heckuva lot more like afarensis than the chimp skull.

  4. I’ll have a post up after the holidays to address that question.

  5. The Bonobo skull does remind me of the genetic evidence of hybridism
    between chimpanzee ancestors and human ancestors. However – I don’t
    know of any reason to believe the chimp skull is any less of a result
    of said hybridism than the bonobo skull is.

    That being said – it seems to me the bonobo’s teeth and supra-orbital
    ridge are only marginally less robust than the chimp’s, and the
    bonobo’s jaw is also more chimp-like than afarensis-like.

  6. The bonobo skull was from a female – and I see where bonobo females have smaller canines. Is the chimp skull a male specimen?

  7. Yes, the chimp skull is a male. But there is more to the story than sexual dimorphism. Compare the bonobo skull with the juvenils chimp skull at the same site.

  8. this is cool!!!!!!!!!!

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