Ontogenetic study of the skull in modern humans and the common chimpanzees: neotenic hypothesis reconsidered with a tridimensional Procrustes analysis

Xavier Penin, Christine Berge, Michel Baylac
American Journal of Physical Anthropology 2002, 118 (1): 50-62
Heterochronic studies compare ontogenetic trajectories of an organ in different species: here, the skulls of common chimpanzees and modern humans. A growth trajectory requires three parameters: size, shape, and ontogenetic age. One of the great advantages of the Procrustes method is the precise definition of size and shape for whole organs such as the skull. The estimated ontogenetic age (dental stages) is added to the plot to give a graphical representation to compare growth trajectories. We used the skulls of 41 Homo sapiens and 50 Pan troglodytes at various stages of growth. The Procrustes superimposition of all specimens was completed by statistical procedures (principal component analysis, multivariate regression, and discriminant function) to calculate separately size-related shape changes (allometry common to chimpanzees and humans), and interspecific shape differences (discriminant function). The results confirm the neotenic theory of the human skull (sensu Gould [1977] Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Alberch et al. [1979] Paleobiology 5:296-317), but modify it slightly. Human growth is clearly retarded in terms of both the magnitude of changes (size-shape covariation) and shape alone (size-shape dissociation) with respect to the chimpanzees. At the end of growth, the adult skull in humans reaches an allometric shape (size-related shape) which is equivalent to that of juvenile chimpanzees with no permanent teeth, and a size which is equivalent to that of adult chimpanzees. Our results show that human neoteny involves not only shape retardation (paedomorphosis), but also changes in relative growth velocity. Before the eruption of the first molar, human growth is accelerated, and then strongly decelerated, relative to the growth of the chimpanzee as a reference. This entails a complex process, which explains why these species reach the same overall (i.e., brain + face) size in adult stage. The neotenic traits seem to concern primarily the function of encephalization, but less so other parts of the skull. Our results, based on the discriminant function, reveal that additional structural traits (corresponding to the nonallometric part of the shape which is specific to humans) are rather situated in the other part of the skull. They mainly concern the equilibrium of the head related to bipedalism, and the respiratory and masticatory functions. Thus, the reduced prognathism, the flexed cranial base (forward position of the foramen magnum which is brought closer to the palate), the reduced anterior portion of the face, the reduced glabella, and the prominent nose mainly correspond to functional innovations which have nothing to do with a neotenic process in human evolution. The statistical analysis used here gives us the possibility to point out that some traits, which have been classically described as paedomorphic because they superficially resemble juvenile traits, are in reality independent of growth.

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