Symphyseal shape variation in extant and fossil hominoids, and the symphysis of Australopithecus bahrelghazali

Franck Guy, Hassane-Taïsso Mackaye, Andossa Likius, Patrick Vignaud, Matthieu Schmittbuhl, Michel Brunet
Journal of Human Evolution 2008, 55 (1): 37-47
The holotype of the species Australopithecus bahrelghazali is a mandibular fragment preserving left C-P(4) and right I(2)-P(4). One of the key features of the A. bahrelghazali mandible is its sagittally and transversally flat anterior region associated with a vertical, bulbous symphysis that is assumed to differ morphologically from the classic, more apelike eastern australopith morphology with its sloping symphysis, developed transverse tori, and distinct genioglossal fossa. Yet, close similarity has been suggested between A. bahrelghazali and A. afarensis. To date, no metrical comparison of the symphyseal morphology of east and west African australopiths has been performed. For the selected characters, this study attempts to test the following null hypothesis: A. bahrelghazali does not present significant differences from A. afarensis (i.e., A. bahrelghazali vs. A. afarensis variation does not depart from expected intraspecific variation for hominoid species). Analysis of the mandibular symphysis is difficult to undertake using conventional linear variables since few landmarks are available to make a precise quantitative assessment of its morphology. In addition, while a few studies have used outline-based techniques of analysis to address symphyseal shape variation, none has integrated data on early hominins. We present here a detailed comparative study of variation in the symphyseal outline of A. bahrelghazali and A. afarensis based on a quantitative characterization by elliptic Fourier coefficients. Original data on symphyseal variation in Pliocene hominins are provided and discussed within a comparative framework of extant and fossil hominoid representatives. We evaluate the relevance of our quantitative data describing the shape of the symphysis for discriminating hominoid taxa, and test for differences in symphyseal shape between A. bahrelghazali and A. afarensis. Elliptic Fourier coefficients appear to be well-suited descriptors for depicting symphyseal variation within hominoids. Our results confirm that symphyseal shape is a good indicator of taxonomic affinity within hominoids, enabling a clear distinction between great apes, early hominins, and modern humans. Furthermore, our results substantiate the unusual pattern of the A. bahrelghazali symphyses compared to A. afarensis and support the specific status of the west African australopith.

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