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Cortical bone distribution of the proximal phalanges in great apes: implications for reconstructing manual behaviours

Syeda, Samar M., Tsegai, Zewdi J., Cazenave, Marine, Skinner, Matthew M., Kivell, Tracy L. (2023) Cortical bone distribution of the proximal phalanges in great apes: implications for reconstructing manual behaviours. Journal of Anatomy, 243 (5). pp. 707-728. ISSN 0021-8782. E-ISSN 1469-7580. (doi:10.1111/joa.13918) (KAR id:101837)


Primate fingers are typically in direct contact with the environment during both locomotion and manipulation, and aspects of external phalangeal morphology are known to reflect differences in hand use. Since bone is a living tissue that can adapt in response to loading through life, the internal bone architecture of the manual phalanges should also reflect differences in manual behaviours. Here, we use the R package Morphomap to analyse high‐resolution microCT scans of hominid proximal phalanges of digits 2–5 to determine whether cortical bone structure reflects variation in manual behaviours between bipedal (Homo), knuckle‐walking (Gorilla, Pan) and suspensory (Pongo) taxa. We test the hypothesis that relative cortical bone distribution patterns and cross‐sectional geometric properties will differ both among extant great apes and across the four digits due to locomotor and postural differences. Results indicate that cortical bone structure reflects the varied hand postures employed by each taxon. The phalangeal cortices of Pongo are significantly thinner and have weaker cross‐sectional properties relative to the African apes, yet thick cortical bone under their flexor sheath ridges corresponds with predicted loading during flexed finger grips. Knuckle‐walking African apes have even thicker cortical bone under the flexor sheath ridges, as well as in the region proximal to the trochlea, but Pan also has thicker diaphyseal cortices than Gorilla. Humans display a distinct pattern of distodorsal thickening, as well as relatively thin cortices, which may reflect the lack of phalangeal curvature combined with frequent use of flexed fingered hand grips during manipulation. Within each taxon, digits 2–5 have a similar cortical distribution in Pongo, Gorilla and, unexpectedly, Homo, which suggest similar loading of all fingers during habitual locomotion or hand use. In Pan, however, cortical thickness differs between the fingers, potentially reflecting differential loading during knuckle‐walking. Inter‐ and intra‐generic variation in phalangeal cortical bone structure reflects differences in manual behaviours, offering a comparative framework for reconstructing hand use in fossil hominins.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1111/joa.13918
Uncontrolled keywords: manual behaviour, cortical bone, phalangeal morphology, internal bone structure, functional morphology, primates
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Anthropology and Conservation
Funders: European Research Council (
SWORD Depositor: JISC Publications Router
Depositing User: JISC Publications Router
Date Deposited: 11 Jul 2023 15:10 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Oct 2023 11:30 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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