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Functional Anatomy, Biomechanical Performance Capabilities and Potential Niche of StW 573: an Australopithecus Skeleton (circa 3.67 Ma) From Sterkfontein Member 2, and its significance for The Last Common Ancestor of the African Apes and for Hominin Origins

By Robin Huw Crompton, Juliet McClymont, Susannah Thorpe, William Sellers, Jason Heaton, Travis Rayne Pickering, Todd Pataky, Dominic Stratford, Kristian Carlson, Tea Jashashvili, Amélie Beaudet, Laurent Bruxelles, Colleen Goh, Kathleen Kuman, Ronald Clarke

Posted 29 Nov 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/481556

StW 573, from Sterkfontein Member 2, dated ca 3.67 Ma, is by far the most complete skeleton of an australopith to date. Joint morphology is in many cases closely matched in available elements of Australopithecus anamensis (eg. proximal and distal tibial and humeral joint-surfaces) and there are also close similarities to features of the scapula, in particular, of KSD-VP-1/1 A. afarensis from Woranso-Mille. The closest similarities are, however, to the partial skeleton of StW 431 from Sterkfontein Member 4. When considered together, both StW 573 and StW 431 express an hip joint morphology quite distinct from that of A. africanus Sts14, and a proximal femur of a presumed A. africanus from Jacovec Cavern at Sterkfontein, StW 598. This, and other evidence presented herein, suggests there are two pelvic girdle morphs at Sterkfontein, supporting Clarke (2013) in his recognition of a second species, A. prometheus, containing StW 573 and StW 431. StW 573 is the first hominid skeleton where limb proportions are known unequivocally. It demonstrates that some early hominins, at the time of formation of the Laetoli footprints (3.6 Ma), were large-bodied. with hindlimbs longer than forelimbs. Modelling studies on extant primates indicate that the intermembral index (IMI) of StW 573, low for a non-human great ape, would have substantially enhanced economy of bipedal walking over medium-to-long distances, but that it was still too high for effective walking while load-carrying. It would, however, have somewhat reduced the economy of horizontal climbing, but made Gorilla-like embracing of large tree-trunks less possible. Consideration of both ethnographic evidence from modern indigenous arboreal foragers and modern degeneracy theory cautions against prescriptive interpretations of hand- and foot-function, by confirming that both human-like upright bipedalism and functional capabilities of the hand and foot can be effective in short-distance arboreal locomotion.

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