Experimental observation, theoretical models, and biomechanical inference in the study of mandibular form

D J Daegling, W L Hylander
American Journal of Physical Anthropology 2000, 112 (4): 541-51
Experimental studies and mathematical models are disparate approaches for inferring the stress and strain environment in mammalian jaws. Experimental designs offer accurate, although limited, characterization of biomechanical behavior, while mathematical approaches (finite element modeling in particular) offer unparalleled precision in depiction of strain magnitudes, directions, and gradients throughout the mandible. Because the empirical (experimental) and theoretical (mathematical) perspectives differ in their initial assumptions and their proximate goals, the two methods can yield divergent conclusions about how masticatory stresses are distributed in the dentary. These different sources of inference may, therefore, tangibly influence subsequent biological interpretation. In vitro observation of bone strain in primate mandibles under controlled loading conditions offers a test of finite element model predictions. Two issues which have been addressed by both finite element models and experimental approaches are: (1) the distribution of torsional shear strains in anthropoid jaws and (2) the dissipation of bite forces in the human alveolar process. Not surprisingly, the experimental data and mathematical models agree on some issues, but on others exhibit discordance. Achieving congruence between these methods is critical if the nature of the relationship of masticatory stress to mandibular form is to be intelligently assessed. A case study of functional/mechanical significance of gnathic morphology in the hominid genus Paranthropus offers insight into the potential benefit of combining theoretical and experimental approaches. Certain finite element analyses claim to have identified a biomechanical problem unrecognized in previous comparative work, which, in essence, is that the enlarged transverse dimensions of the postcanine corpus may have a less important role in resisting torsional stresses than previously thought. Experimental data have identified subperiosteal cortical thinning as a culprit in diminishing the role of cross-sectional geometry in conditioning the strain environment. These observations raise questions concerning the biomechanical significance of mandibular form in early hominids, fueling persistent arguments over whether gnathic morphology can be related to dietary specialization in the "robust" australopithecines. Nonmechanical explanations (e.g., tooth size or body size) for Paranthropus mandibular dimensions, however, are not compelling as competing hypotheses. Both theoretical and experimental models are in need of refinement before it is possible to conclude that the jaws of the "robust" australopithecines are not functionally linked to elevated masticatory loads.

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