Another look at shape variation in the distal femur of Australopithecus afarensis: implications for taxonomic and functional diversity at Hadar

Michael R Lague
Journal of Human Evolution 2002, 42 (5): 609-26
Previous studies have recognized two patterns of distal femoral morphology among the specimens from Hadar (Ethiopia) assigned to Australopithecus afarensis. Size and shape differences between the well-preserved large (AL 333-4) and small (AL 129-1a) distal femora have been used to invoke both taxonomic and functional differences within the A. afarensis hypodigm. Nevertheless, prior studies have not analyzed these specimens in a multivariate context, nor have they compared the pattern of shape differences between the fossils to patterns of sexual dimorphism among extant taxa (i.e., the manner in which males and females differ). This study reexamines morphometric differences between the above specimens in light of observed levels of variation and patterns of sexual dimorphism among extant hominoids. Eight extant reference populations were sampled to provide a standard by which to consider size and shape differences between the fossils. Samples include three populations of modern humans, two subspecies of Pan troglodytes, three subspecies of Gorilla gorilla, Pan paniscus, and Pongo pygmaeus. Using size ratios and scale-free "shape" data (both derived from 2-D coordinate landmarks), size and shape differences between the fossils were evaluated against variation within each reference population using an exact randomization procedure. Growth Difference Matrix Analysis (GDMA) was used to test whether the pattern of morphological differences between the fossils differs significantly from patterns of sexual dimorphism observed among the ten extant groups. Overall morphometric affinities of the fossils to extant taxa were explored using canonical variates analysis (CVA). Results of the randomization tests indicate that the size difference between the Hadar femora can be easily accommodated within most hominoid taxa at the subspecific level (though not within single-sex samples). In addition, the magnitude of shape differences between the fossils can be commonly sampled even within most single-sex samples of a single hominoid subspecies. The pattern of morphological differences between the fossils does not differ statistically from any average pattern of femoral shape dimorphism observed among living hominoids. Moreover, contrary to prior claims, and despite a size disparity between the fossils greater than is typically observed within some chimpanzee and human populations, the two Hadar fossils appear to be much more similar to one another in overall shape than either specimen is to any extant hominoid group.

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