Comparative review of the human bony labyrinth



The bony labyrinth inside the petrous part of the temporal bone houses the organs of hearing and balance. Being functionally linked with sensory control of body movements and located in a part of the basicranium that is closely associated with the brain, this structure is of great interest in the study of human evolutionary history. However, few aspects of its morphology have been studied in nonhuman primates. This review compares the bony labyrinth of humans with that of the great apes and 37 other primate species based on data newly acquired with computed tomography combined with previous descriptions. With body mass taken into account, consistent differences are found between the size of the semicircular canals in humans, the great apes, and other primates. In particular, the arcs of the anterior and posterior canals are larger in humans than in the African apes. The functional implications of semicircular canal dimensions for registering angular head motion are evaluated in relation to locomotor behavior. Biophysical models, comparative studies, and some neurophysiological experiments all support a link between semicircular canal size and agility, or more specifically the frequency contents of natural head movements, but the evidence on the exact nature of this link is ambiguous. It is concluded that any link between the characteristic dimensions of the human canals and locomotion will be more complex than a simple association with the broad categories of quadrupedal vs. bipedal behavior. The functionally important planar orientations of the semicircular canals are similar in humans and the African apes as well as in many other species. In contrast, other aspects of the human labyrinth differ markedly in shape, following a pattern that seems to reflect the characteristic architecture of the human basicranium. Indeed, it is found that labyrinthine and basicranial shape are interspecifically correlated in the sample, and in most respects the human morphology is consistent with the general trend among primate species. Differences in brain growth and development are proposed as the predominant factor underlying both the unique shape of the human labyrinth as well as the interspecific labyrintho-basicranial correlations. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 41:211–251, 1998. © 1998 Wiley-Liss, Inc.