Australopithecus africanus (?) foot bone, and a small rant

Be forewarned, this summary of a recent article on an A. africanus fifth metatarsal also features a short rant. So feel free to stop reading after I start to sound preachy or crazy.



Friend and colleague Jerry DeSilva is part of a recent study of the fossil Stw 114/115, the earliest and most complete hominin fifth metatarsal (the bone forming the side “wall” of your foot just before your little toe). Probably it can be attributed to Australopithecus africanus. Lead author is Bernhard Zipfel of the University of the Witswatersrand. On an aside, Bernhard is the curator of the fossil collections at Wits, so if you’re interested in researching their collection, he’s the one to contact. I met him a few weeks ago, and he is very nice and friendly.

Back to the paper, the authors present a thorough description of the fossil foot bone, a thorough comparison of it to human and great ape homologues, and an exploratory multivariate analysis. The conclusion is that the fossil is decidedly human-like, indicating that the individual who possessed this foot (presumably A. africanus) had a lateral foot functionally identical to modern humans (read “obligate biped”). The authors infer from its overall form that feet of A. africanus (or, again, whatever species this fossil belonged to) had both a longitudinal and a transverse arch, just like humans (non-human primate feet only have the transverse arch).

I have to say, this is an excellent paper, especially compared to lots of studies I’ve read over the past few years. The qualitative description and comparison of the fossil points to many differences between human and ape fifth metatarsals, and similarities between the fossil and humans. Observations made with the eye are then corroborated and elaborated with a quantitative analysis. In contrast, many (but of course not all) studies today largely omit qualitative descriptions and comparisons, delving straight into quantitative analyses. I think this is in attempt to be “scientific” and objective. This zeal for being ‘scientific’ with regard to quantitative methods stands in curious opposition to a general lack of actual hypothesis testing in much of the literature. Of course, this is not a jab at exploratory and descriptive studies, which by their nature usually don’t have hypotheses to test.

I think it’s important to remember that not all questions can (or have to) be addressed by strictly quantitative studies (i.e. by numbers). For example, human metatarsals have a groove separating the head from the shaft—this feature relates to our increased ability to “dorsiflex” our toes when we walk (think of how your toes are oriented relative to the rest of your foot when on tip-toes). This groove is absent in apes. How can a quantitative analysis of human vs. ape metatarsals account for this? I suppose it could be scored as ‘present’ or ‘absent,’ or scored by the relative expression of the groove (i.e.0=absent, 1=weak, 2=deep, etc.). But, the former, dichotomizing scoring system fails to account for variation, while the latter can become quite subjective. On the other hand, I suppose a very complex geometric morphometric analysis could use an immense amount of landmarks to describe the shape of the metatarsal, including the groove (or lack thereof) behind the head. But then you get into the issue of comparing biologically non-homologous structures (although Bookstein and others have done a good—or rather ingenious—job developing methods for making ‘geometrically homologous’ semi-landmarks, and Klingenberg has recently described a way to compare features that are variably present or absent). The main point here is that by focusing/relying solely on ‘the numbers’ (or ‘the science’), researchers stand to miss some important anatomical information.

Sorry about the rant. Anyway, the paper doesn’t really miss anything. It’s a great example of the union of qualitative and quantitative analyses. My only comment is on their human reference sample of “Victorian British” people. I don’t know the sample, but they probably wore shoes. A more apt comparison might have been with humans that didn’t wear shoes, since shoes really affect our foot anatomy. Of course if this sample was habitually unshod, then this doesn’t really matter. And regardless, the Sts 114/115 Australopithecus africanus (?) fifth metatarsal shows great similarity to those of humans, and probably functioned like those of humans.



Reference

Zipfel B, DeSilva J and Kidd R. Earliest complete hominin fifth metatarsal—Implications for the evolution of the lateral column of the foot. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, in press. DOI 10.1002/ajpa.21103

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3 thoughts on “Australopithecus africanus (?) foot bone, and a small rant

  1. This is the enduring problem of "characters", the great white hope of geometric morphometrics, and the reason why it's so bloody hard to know whether anything anybody has written in palaeoanthropology is nonsense or not.

  2. I'm sure ultimately it will all be nonsense.While GM is a great tool, and amazing strides have been made in developing it in the past few years, I think it's worth remembering that it can't solve all our problems. Specifically I think we should be careful when using GM on fossils (the stuff from S. African caves comes to mind), that are generally fragmentary and often distorted. Although, the 2008 AAPA meetings Sarah Freidline had an interesting poster on using GM on fragments. And Philipp Gunz et al. recently had a cool paper on guidelines for using GM to reconstruct crania.This cautionary note is not meant to disparage GM. There are some things I'd like to address with GM, but that will have to wait until a later post…

  3. I agree.They are fantastic methods when used correctly and within certain contexts. But they aren't miracle tools, and are just as liable as any other methods to be used in an attempt to polish a turd.

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