Ima Gona follow up on that last post

Last week, I discussed the implications of the Gona hominin pelvis for body size and body size variation in Homo erectus. One of the bajillion things I have been working on since this post is elaborating on this analysis to write up, so stay tuned for more developments!

Now, when we compared the gross size of the hip joint between fossil Homo and living apes (based on the femur head in most specimens but the acetabulum in Gona and a few other fossils), the range of variation in Homo-including-Gona was generally elevated above variation seen in all living great apes. This is impressive, since orangutans and gorillas show a great range of variation due sexual dimorphism (normal differences between females and males). However, I noted that the specimens I used were unsexed, and so the resampling strategy used to quantify variation within a species – randomly selecting two specimens and taking the ratio of the larger to smaller – probably underestimated sexual dimorphism.

Shortly after I posted this, Dr. Herman Pontzer twitterated me to point out he has made lots of skeletal data freely available on his website (a tremendous resource). The ape and human data I used for last week’s post did not have sexes (my colleague has since sent me that information), but Pontzer’s data are sexed (no, not “sext“). So, I modified and reran the original resampling analysis using the Pontzer data, and it nicely illustrates the difference between using a max/min vs. male/female ratio to compare variation:

Hip joint size variation in living African apes (left and right) compared with fossil humans (genus Homo older than 1 mya, center). Each plot is scaled to show the same y-axis range. On the left are ratios of max/min from resampled pairs from each species (sex not taken into account). On the right are ratios of male/female from resampled pairs from each species. The red dots on this plot are the medians for max/min ratios (the thick black bars in the left plot). The center plot shows ratios of Homo/Gona.

Hip joint size variation in living African apes (left and right) compared with fossil humans (genus Homo older than 1 mya, center). Each plot is scaled to show the same y-axis range. On the left are ratios of max/min from resampled pairs from each species (sex not taken into account). On the right are ratios of male/female from resampled pairs from each species. The red stars on this plot are the medians for max/min ratios (the thick black bars in the left plot). The center plot shows ratios of Homo/Gona.

The left plot shows resampled ratios of max/min in humans, chimpanzees and gorillas, while the right shows ratios of male/female in these species. If no assumption is made about a specimen’s sex (left plot), it is possible to resample a pair of the same sex, and so it is likelier to sample two individuals similar in size. Note that the ratio of max/min can never be less than 1. However, if sex is taken into account (right plot), we see two key differences. First, because of size overlap between males and females in humans and chimpanzees, ratios can fall below 1. Adult gorilla males are much larger than females, and so the ratio is never as low as 1 (minimum=1.08). Second, in more dimorphic species, the male/female ratio is elevated above the max/min ratio (red stars in the right plot). In chimpanzees, the median male/female ratio is actually just barely lower than the median max/min ratio. If you want numbers: the median max/min ratios for humans, chimpanzees and gorillas are 1.09, 1.06 and 1.16, respectively. The corresponding median male/female ratios are 1.15, 1.06 and 1.25.

Regarding the fossils, if we assume that Gona is female and all other ≥1 mya Homo hips are male, the range of hip size variation can be found within the gorilla range, and less often in the human range.

But the story doesn’t end here. One thing I’ve considered for the full analysis (and as Pontzer also pointed out on Twitter) is that the relationship between hip joint size and body weight is not the same between humans and apes. As bipeds, we humans place all our upper body weight on our hips; apes aren’t bipedal and so relatively less of their weight is transmitted through this joint. As a result, human hip joint size increases faster with increasing body mass than it does in apes.

So for next installment in this fossil saga, I’ll consider body mass variation estimated from hip joint size. Based on known hip-body size relationships in humans vs. apes, we can predict that male/female variation in humans and fossil hominins will be relatively higher than the ratios presented here – will this put fossil Homo-includng-Gona outside the gorilla range of variation? Stay tuned to find out!

Gona … Gona … not Gona work here anymore more

The Gona pelvic remains (A-D), and the reconstructed complete pelvis (E-J), Fig. 2 in Simpson et al., 2008.

A few years ago, Scott Simpson and colleagues published some of the most complete fossil human hips (right). The fossils are from the Busidima geological formation in the Gona region of Ethiopia, dated to between 0.9-1.4 million years ago. (Back when I wasn’t the only author of this blog, my friend and colleague Caroline VanSickle wrote about it here)

Researchers attributed the pelvis to Homo erectus on the basis of its late geological age and a number of derived (Homo-like) features. In addition, the pelvis’s very small size indicated it probably belonged to a female. One implication of this fossil was that male and female H. erectus differed drastically in body size.

Christopher Ruff (2010) took issue with how small this specimen was, noting that its overall size is more similar to the small-bodied Australopithecus species. Using the size of the hip joint as a proxy for body mass, Ruff argued Gona’s small size would imply a profound amount of sexual dimorphism in H. erectus: much higher than if Gona is excluded from this species, and higher than in modern humans or other fossil humans. Ruff thus proposed an alternative hypothesis to marked sexual dimorphism, that the Gona pelvis may have belonged to an australopithecine.

Fig. 3 From Ruff's (2010) reply. Australopiths (and Orrorin) are squares and Homo are circles. Busidima's estimated femur head diameter is represented by the star and bar.

Fig. 3 From Ruff’s (2010) reply. Australopiths (and Orrorin) are squares and Homo are circles. Gona’s estimated femur head diameter is represented by the star and bar.

Now, Simpson & team replied to Ruff’s comments, providing a laundry list of reasons why this pelvis is H. erectus and not Australopithecus. They cite many anatomical features of the pelvis shared with Gona and Homo fossils, but not australopithecines. They also note that there are many other bones reflective of body size, that seem to suggest a substantial amount of size variation in Homo fossils, even those from a single site such as Dmanisi (Lordkipanadze et al., 2007).

Interestingly, neither of these parties compared the implied size variation with that of living apes. So I’ll do it! Now, I do not have any acetabulum data, but a friend lent me some femur head measurements for living great apes a few years ago. Gona is a pelvis and not a femur, but there are more fossil femora than hips. Because there’s a very high correlation between femur head and acetabulum size, Ruff estimated Gona’s femur head diameter to be 32.6 mm (95% confidence interval: 30.1-35.2; Simpson et al. initially estimated 35.1 mm based on a different dataset and method). To quantify size variation, we can compare ratios of larger femur heads divided by smaller ones. Now, this ratio quantifies inter-individual variation, but it will underestimate sexual dimorphism since I’m likely sampling some same-sex pairs that aren’t so different in size. But this is just a quick and dirty look. So, here’s a box plot of these ratios for Homo fossils, larger specimens divided by Gona’s estimated femur head size in different time periods:

Ratio of a fossil Homo femur head diameter (HD) divided by Busidima's HD. E Homo = early Pleistocene, Contemporaneous = WT 15000 and OH 28, MP = Middle Pleistocene Homo. White boxes are based on Ruff's Busidima HD estimate, green boxes are based on Simpson et al.'s estimate.

Ratios of fossil Homo femur head diameter (HD) divided by Busidima’s (Gona’s) HD. E Homo = early Pleistocene, Contemporaneous = WT 15000 and OH 28, MP = Middle Pleistocene Homo. White boxes are based on Ruff’s Gona HD estimate, green boxes are based on Simpson et al.’s larger estimate. Boxes include 50% quartiles and the thick lines within are sample medians.

Clearly, Gona is much smaller than most other fossil Homo hips, since ratios are never smaller than 1.14. Average body size increases over time in the Homo lineage, reflected in increasing ratios from left to right on the plot. Early Pleistocene Homo fossils are fairly small, including Dmanisi, hence the lower ratios than later time periods. Middle Pleistocene Homo (MP), represented by the most fossils, shows a large range of variation, but even the smallest is still 1.17 times larger than the largest estimate of Gona’s femur head size. To put this into context, here are those green ratios (assuming a larger size for Gona) compared with large/small ratios from resampled pairs of living apes and humans:


The fossil ratios of larger/smaller HD from above, compared with resampled ratios from unsexed living apes and humans. Boxes include the 50% quartiles, and the thick lines within are sample medians. **(05/03/14: This plot has been modified from the original version post, which only included the fossil ratios based on the smaller Gona estimate)

What we see for the extant apes and humans makes sense: humans and chimpanzees show smaller differences on average, whereas average differences between gorillas and orangutans are larger. This accords with patterns of sexual dimorphism in these species. **What this larger box plot shows is that if we accept Ruff’s smaller average estimate of Gona’s femur head size (white boxes), it is relatively rare to sample two living specimens so different in size as seen between Gona and other fossils. If we use Simpson et al.’s larger Gona size estimate, variation is still elevated above most living ape ratios. Only when Gona is compared with the generally-smaller, earlier Pleistocene fossils, does the estimated range of variation show decent overlap with living species. Even then, the overlap is still above the median values.

These results based on living species agree with Ruff’s concern, that including Gona in Homo erectus results in an unusually large range of variation in this species. Such a large size range isn’t necessarily impossible, but it would be surprising to see more variation than is common in gorillas and orangutans, where sexual size dimorphism is tremendous. Ruff suggested that the australopith-sized Gona pelvis may in fact be an australopith. This was initially deemed unlikely, in part because the fossil is well-dated to relatively late, 0.9-1.4 million years ago. However, Dominguez-Rodgrigo and colleauges (2013) recently reported a 1.34 mya Australopithecus boisei skeleton from Olduvai Gorge, so it is possible that australopiths persisted longer than we’ve got fossil evidence for, and Gona is one of the latest holdouts.

So many possible explanations. More clarity may come with further study of the fossils at hand, but chances are we won’t be able to eliminate any of these possibilities until we get more fossils. (also, the post title wasn’t a jab at the fossils or researchers, but rather a reference to the movie Office Space)


Dominguez-Rodrigo et al. 2013. First partial skeleton of a 1.33-million-year-old Paranthropus boisei from Bed II, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. PLoS One 8: e80347.

Ruff C. 2010. Body size and body shape in early hominins – implications of the Gona pelvis. Journal of Human Evolution 58: 166-178.

Simpson S et al. 2008. A female Homo erectus pelvis from Gona, Ethiopia. Science 322: 1089-1092.

Simpson S et al. In press. The female Homo pelvis from Gona: Response to Ruff (2010). Journal of Human Evolution.

Busidima female pelvis

Yay! A female, mostly complete, Homo erectus pelvis has been found (Simpson et al 2008)! I say “yay” because female pelves are the best way to learn about the effects of birthing on pelvic morphology, despite the numerous studies that claim to glean this knowledge from male pelves (I’m basing this mainly on Neandertal examples as I am admittedly not as well versed with H erectus papers).

Quick summary of the facts: Found in Gona, Ethiopia, BSN49/P27a-d (a.k.a. the Busidima pelvis) consists of both os coxae (hipbones) and the upper part of the sacrum of what has been identified as an adult female Homo erectus dated to 0.9 to 1.4 Ma. The hipbones are mostly complete, except for portions of the ilium missing on both sides and portions of the ischial tuberosities. Overall, the pelvis has been reconstructed so that measurements can be taken (see image below, taken from the Simpson et al 2008 article).

Why I’m excited: Since this fossil is female and has the first complete early Pleistocene pubis, and thus the first complete pelvic inlet, it means legitimate inferences about birthing can be made. The initial paper addresses this by exploring neonate (i.e. infant at birth) head sizes compared to inlet dimensions. The authors found that Busidima would have been capable of birthing infants 30% larger than predicted based on the Homo erectus pelvis KNM-WT 15000 (male subadult). Already this find is showing why making assumptions about birth based on male specimens is flawed! Yay!!

Why I’m concerned: The authors draw conclusions about the width of the trunk based on the bi-iliac breadth. As the picture shows, the ilia are largely reconstructed, making any measurement between the widest points on the iliac crest dubious. I’m not saying it’s a bad reconstruction; in fact it looks reasonable to me. I just believe caution must be used when drawing conclusions based on reconstructed measurements. Especially since I cannot find details on how the ilia were reconstructed (if I’ve missed something in my reading of the online supporting material, please, someone correct me). Given that this is the case, it seems extreme to use incomplete ilia as evidence against an endurance running hypothesis and as evidence for what type of environment this specimen lived in.

What others are saying: Hawks goes into more anatomical detail in his blog post about the article. He discusses questions raised by the study and points out that you really have to read the supporting stuff to get the full picture as the Science article is “superficial”. Beast Ape’s blog post discusses the bi-iliac interpretation and what it means. For a multilingual look, Mundo Neandertal also discusses the article, and based on my imperfect Spanish capabilities, I think they discuss the infant head size findings. Finally, New Scientist describes the findings in a newsy way, detailing the bigger birth canal (compared to WT 15000) and the squat proportions of Busidima. Enjoy!

Simpson et al. 2008 A Female Homo erectus Pelvis from Gona, Ethiopia. Science 322: 1089-1092.