Of course the title is referring to all of the back bones. An alternate title may be “The backbone’s connected to the – what bone?” but that’s also kinda lame. I’ll do better next time.
Martin Hausler and colleagues (in press) report on newly identified vertebral fragments of the WT 15000 Homo erectus skeleton, perhaps the most complete of an early hominid (this one ~1.5 million years ago). This skeleton, and other early hominids (i.e. Australopithecus africanus), were described as having six lumbar (lower back) vertebrae; the modal number in humans is 5, and 3-4 in the great apes. The issue of vertebral formula (the number of cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral verts) in hominids is interesting because it is unclear what the ancestral condition is: was ancestral pattern to have more lumbars (like australopiths) from which humans and apes lost verts, or is ape pattern is ancestral, and lumbars were gained then lost over the course of human evolution?
The fragments found by Hausler and team establish that the WT 15000 individual – and presumably all H. erectus – possessed only 5 lumbar vertebrae. In the past, the only evidence of the 6th-to-last pre-sacral vertebra was the vertebral body. It was unclear whether this vertebra would have had articular facets for ribs (like a thoracic vertebra) or not (like a lumbar vertebra). The pedicle fragments identified by Hausler and colleagues (figure to the right) have a rib facet, and so indicate that the 6th-to-last vertebra of this skeleton was thoracic. Thus, WT 15000 – and again presumably all Homo erectus – had a modern-human-like vertebral formula.
The evo-devo of the spinal column is interesting because it seems to me that it may not be so outlandish to try to identify and test hypotheses about how spinal column development (segmentation) changed over the course of hominid and ape evolution. In trying to determine how development of vertebral segments evolved it is important to know how ancient the human pattern is, and so the identification of 5 lumbars in WT 15000 at 1.5 million years ago is an important finding. I need to think on this a bit, I’ll hafta get back to you . . .
* figures are from Hausler et al. in press
Martin Haeusler, Regula Schiess, Thomas Boeni (2011). New vertebral and rib material point to modern bauplan of the Nariokotome Homo erectus skeleton Journal of Human Evolution : 10.1016/j.jhevol.2011.07.004