Osteology Everywhere: Skeletal Spice

The American winter holiday season is steeped in special spices, such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and whatever the hell pumpkin spice is. I guess as part of the never-ending War on Christmas, each year this sensory and commercial immersion begins earlier and earlier. Since these have become old news, I’d pretty much forgotten about the seasonal spicecapade until just the other day. In prep for minor holiday gluttony, I was grinding fresh nutmeg when I made a startling discovery. Nutmeg is not just the fragrant fruit of the Myristica fragrans tree. No, there’s something far more sinister in this holiday staple.


Merely nutmeg?

The ground section looks superficially like an unfused epiphyseal surface, whereas the rounded outer surface is more spherical. It turns out, in the most nefarious of all holiday conspiracies since the War on Christmas, nutmeg halves are nothing more than unfused femur heads! Compare with the epiphyseal surface of this Homo naledi femur head:


Nutmeg (left) and H. naledi specimen UW 101-1098 (right).

This immature H. naledi specimen was recently published (Marchi et al., in press), and the associated 3D surface scan has been available for free download on Morphosource.org for a while now. It fits onto a proximal femur fragment, UW 101-1000, also free to download from Morphosource.


Modified Fig. 11 from Marchi et al. It’s weird that only H. naledi bones were found in the Dinaledi chamber, but even weirder is the underreported presence of nutmeg.

Like most  bones in the skeleton, the femur is comprised of many separate pieces that appear and fuse together at different, fairly predictable ages. The shaft of the femur appears and turns to bone before birth, and the femur head, which forms the ball in the hip joint, usually appears within the first year of life and fuses to the femur neck in adolescence (Scheuer and Black, 2000). So we know this H. naledi individual was somewhere between 1–15ish years by human standards, probably in the latter half of this large range.

So there you have it. Osteology is everywhere – the holidays are practically a pit of bones if you keep your eyes open.


Marchi D, Walker CS, Wei P, Holliday TW, Churchill SE, Berger LR, & DeSilva JM (2016). The thigh and leg of Homo naledi. Journal of Human Evolution PMID: 27855981.

Scheuer L and Black S. 2000. Developmental Juvenile Osteology. New York: Elsevier Academic Press.



I’m going to do my best to keep up with the blog during by Big Summer Adventure, and one thing I’d like to do is “F-ing Fossil Friday!” in which I focus on fossils for a bit. We’ll see if I can make this pan out.
Today I got out the rest of the Australopithecus robustus mandibles at the Transvaal Museum (above), save for I think maybe 1. As you can see from the picture, taphonomy (what happens to an animal’s remains between death and our digging them up) creates a serious challenge for the study of variation in this species. I’m focusing on ontogenetic variation – differences associated with growth and development. In spite of its fragmentary nature, so far as I know this is the best ontogenetic series of any fossil hominid (I should probably look more into A. afarensis here, too). In the bottom left you’ll see SK 438, the youngest in the sample, whose baby teeth haven’t quite come in all the way. Poor little guy! At the top right corner is SK 12, probably the oldest individual and also a big bugger.
One thing that I’ve noticed so far, only a preliminary observation that I need to actually run some numbers on, is that as individuals get older, the length of their tooth row (molars and premolars) gets shorter. This is because of the tendency for teeth to move forward during growth – “mesial drift” – and for adjacent teeth to literally wear into one another, their ends becoming flatter and flatter. While I should have realized this, it was surprising at first to find some dimensions of the lower jaw actually decreasing during growth. Now, I still have to run some tests to see if this is a biologically significant phenomenon. But it’s always nice to learn something new, even after just 2 days back with my best extinct buddies.
Stay tuned to future eFfing fossil Fridays!

100,000 year old child skeleton on National Geographic

National Geographic aired a special tonight about a recently-excavated child’s skeleton (they focused on the skull) from Grotte des Contrebandiers in Morocco, dated to around 108,000 years ago. So far as I know this material has not been fully published (aside from a brief blurb in Science). Hmm, a highly publicized TV special on a big hominid fossil discovery around/before the scientific publication, sounds familiar…

The program presented work of archaeologists, paleontologists, reconstruction artists, taphonomists, and lots of other people, hoping to figure out who the kid was and such. All in all it was pretty cool, I’d recommend checking it out if you didn’t see it. Or again if you did see it.

While I think it was a great program and the researchers involved are doing a terrific job, I had two main concerns: first, I wish they’d treated the topic of growth-n-development a little more. They noted that the child (5-6 years old possibly) looked really “modern” because of its flat face. But looking at it, it didn’t really have that flat of a face, especially for a child. They talked about how human-like (rather than Neandertal-like) the kid was, but they only compared it with adults – children tend to have relatively smaller faces and larger brain-cases than adults (right), so it’s no wonder it looked more like an adult human than the adult Neandertal from Amud (Israel) that they compared it with. It would’ve been great to see more comparisons with other late Pleistocene hominid kids, such as from Skhul/Qafzeh or La Quina. A future program, perhaps.
Second, they kept asking whether the kid was “a Homo sapien.” I know it’s counterintuitive for English-speakers, but “H. sapiens” is the singular and plural of humans’ scientific name. Silly, right, cuz it doesn’t even get paid twice as much. But you’ll have take that up with C. Linnaeus. I am a Homo sapiens. You are a Homo sapiens. Fifty people are a gaggle of Homo sapiens. I fail my students if they say “sapien” when referring to humans. Because it’s not very sapient of them.
Anyway it was a cool show. Check it out, dammit!
Figure credit: Fig. 2 from Bogin. 2003. The human pattern of growth and development in paleontological perspective. In Patterns of Growth and Development in the Genus Homo, eds. Thompson JL, Krovitz GE and Nelson AJ. New York: Cambridge University Press: 15-44.

"Big Man" and the scapula of Australopithecus afarensis

Last November I reported on recently described Australopithecus cf. afarensis craniodental remains from the site of Woranso Mille in Ethiopia. These fossils are significant in part because they date to around 3.6 million years ago; most of the postcranial evidence for A. afarensis comes from Hadar (~3.4 – 2.9 million years) or Maka (~3.5 million years). It is pretty awesome, then, that Yohannes Haile-Selassie and colleagues (2010a) have just reported on a partial skeleton from Woranso-Mille.

The specimen is given the catalog number KSD-VP-1/1 (right, from Nature), and the nickname Kadanuumuu, meaning “Big Man” in the language of the Afar people who live in the region where the fossils were discovered. Here, I’ll be focusing on the scapula.

Researchers have debated about what the scapular form of A. afarensis means functionally – how could, and did, these creatures use their shoulders? The scapula of AL 288 (the famous “Lucy”) preserves part of the glenoid fossa (shoulder socket) and only a little of the surrounding bone including the scapular spine (below). It has been argued that the angle between the glenoid fossa and the lateral border is more similar to modern apes than to humans. That is, the shoulder socket may have been oriented more upward, like in modern apes, compared to humans whose socket faces more to the side. The implication is that A. afarensis may have been preferentially exploiting arboreal environments.

Left: AL 288 scapular fragment. The glenoid fossa is the hollow that faces to the right, the lateral border is at the bottom paralleling the label “AL 288-1L.” The scapular spine is preserved only at the base, it is the small uprising of bone just to the left of the glenoid fossa. From Haile-Selassie et al. 2010b, Fig. S21.

Similarly, a juvenile afarensis skeleton from the Ethiopian site of Dikika (Alemseged et al. 2006), dating to around 3.4 million years ago, also suggested an ape-like shoulder for this extinct human ancestor. Principle components analysis of several measurements from the Dikika scapula showed it to be very similar to gorillas of comparable age, in terms of overall shape and proportions.

So from these two scapulae, one belonging to a very small-bodied female, the other from a small ~3-year-old possible female, we get the picture that A. afarensis had a fairly ape-like (i.e. arboreal) shoulder orientation, and may not have had independent movement of the head and trunk that we modern humans enjoy. Nevertheless, it is still unclear whether this means that the afarensis scapula functioned like that of an ape, and hence its shape, or whether the similarity in shape is a ‘hold-over’ from having an arboreal ancestor. I will say, I think one very telling feature noticeable in even the fragmentary AL 288 is the relative position and orientation of the scapular spine. Note that in the apes (the two juveniles scapulae on the right of the diagram to the left), the scapular spine roughly parallels the lateral border, and as a result, the flat areas above and below the spine are roughly equal in size. The above area houses the supraspinatus muscle, a rotator cuff muscle that acts largely in elevating the arm above the head and stabilizing the shoulder joint. In humans and afarensis, in contrast, the lower (insfraspinous) fossa is fairly large compared to the upper (supraspinous) fossa. Thus, the argument can be made that in humans and hominids, less power is needed to raise the arms over the head, or that humans and hominids have a greater reliance on the infraspinatus muscle for bringing the arm down toward the body and stabilizing the shoulder joint.

Now, KSD-VP-1 provides a remarkably complete scapula of an adult afarensis (right). In contrast to the specimens described above, KSD-VP-1 is very human-like. To the naked eye, and as borne out by principle components analysis of scapular angles, this thing is very human-like.

Now the question is, why does the morphology of this new specimen seem at odds with Lucy and Dikika? Part of the answer could be scaling – indeed, the authors note that the orientation of the glenoid relative to the lateral border (more specifically the scapular bar) in AL 288 can be found in modern humans of small size.

But that still does not answer the question of why the complete adult afarensis scapula is like adult humans, whereas the child afarensis is like young gorillas. The authors posit that perhaps it is due to Dikika’s fairly large supraspinous fossa. They also suggest that the measurements used in Alemseged et al’s study could not capture functional and discriminatory information about scapula shape. Nevertheless, a simple visual comparison the Dikika and KSD (x-ray…) scapulae reveals them to look fairly different, i.e. Dikika is relatively broader side-to-side.

Could ontogeny explain the differences between the child and adult afarensis? In a study of scapular growth and development in living primates, Young (2008) found childhood growth does not appear to explain adult shape variation. That is to say, most aspects of species-specific morphology are present in subadult scapulae. Rather, most variation in scapular shape among modern primates appears to be due to functional differences: climbers’ scapulae differ consistently from quadrupeds’. So what does that imply? That at 3.59 million years, adult male A. afarensis were not using their shoulders for arboreal activities, but at 3.4 million years ago, subadults were? Maybe this is just normal intraspecific variation? Maybe the ontogeny of the scapulae needs to be examined further?

I have to say I agree with Haile-Selassie et al. (2010a) here, that differences in the statistical analyses between the current study and that of Alemseged et al. (2006) may be partly responsible for the different interpretations of A. afarensis scapular morphology. Still, visual inspection of pictures of the fossils suggests to me that even if the principle components analyses were carried out using the same variables (Alemseged et al. used linear measurements, H-S et al. used angles), Dikika might seem gorilla-like, KSD still human-like; Nota bene that principle components analysis is not actually a test in itself, but rather an exploratory statistical technique. As such, it will never really “tell” how a bone was used. Still, I think this does raise an important issue about scapular function and ontogeny in hominoids.

Alemseged Z, Spoor F, Kimble WH, Bobe R, Geraads D, Reed D, and Wynn JG. 2006. A juvenile early hominin skeleton from Dikika, Ethiopia. Nature 443: 296-301.

Haile-Selassie Y, Latimer BM, Alene M, Deino AL, Gibert L, Melillo, Saylor BZ, Scott GR, and Lovejoy CO. 2010a. An early Australopithecus afarensis postcranium from Woranso-Mille, Ethiopia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, in press.

Haile-Selassie et al. 2010b. Supplementary Online Material to 2010a.

Young NM. 2008. A Comparison of the ONtogeny of Shape Variation in the Anthropoid Scapula: Functional and Phylogenetic Signal. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 136: 247-264.