The postcranial axial skeleton exhibits considerable morphological and functional diversity among living primates. Particularly striking are the derived features in hominoids that distinguish them from most other primates and mammals. In contrast to the primitive catarrhine morphotype, which presumably possessed an external (protruding) tail and emphasized more pronograde trunk posture, all living hominoids are characterized by the absence of an external tail and adaptations to orthograde trunk posture. Moreover, modern humans evolved unique vertebral features that satisfy the demands of balancing an upright torso over the hind limbs during habitual terrestrial bipedalism. Our ability to identify the evolutionary timing and understand the functional and phylogenetic significance of these fundamental changes in postcranial axial skeletal anatomy in the hominoid fossil record is key to reconstructing ancestral hominoid patterns and retracing the evolutionary pathways that led to living apes and modern humans. Here, we provide an overview of what is known about evolution of the hominoid vertebral column, focusing on the currently available anatomical evidence of three major transitions: tail loss and adaptations to orthograde posture and bipedal locomotion.
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