Knuckle-walking and the evolution of hominoid hands

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Abstract

Knuckle-walking is a pattern of digitigrade locomotion unique to African apes among Primates. Only chimpanzees and gorillas are specially adapted for supporting weight on the dorsal aspects of middle phalanges of flexed hand digits II–V. When forced to the ground, most orangutans assume one of a variety of flexed hand postures, but they cannot knuckle-walk. Some orangutans place their hands in palmigrade postures which are impossible to African apes. The knuckle-walking hands and plantigrade feet of African apes are both morphologically and adaptively distinct from those of Pongo, their nearest relative among extant apes. These features are associated with a common adaptive shift to terrestrial locomotion and support placing chimpanzees and gorillas in the same genus Pan. It is further suggested than Pan comprises the subgenera (a) Pan, including P. troglodytes and pygmy chimpanzees, and (b) Gorilla, including mountain and lowland populations of P. gorilla.

African apes probably diverged from ancestral pongids that were specially adapted for distributing their weight in terminal branches of the forest canopy. Early adjustments to terrestrial locomotion may have involved fist-walking which later evolved into knuckle-walking. Orangutans continued to adapt to feeding and locomotion in the forest canopy and their hands and feet became highly specialized for four-digit prehension. Although chimpanzees retained arboreal feeding and nesting habits, they moved from tree to tree by terrestrial routes and became less restricted in habitat. While adapting to a diet of ground plants gorillas increased in size to the point that arboreal nesting is less frequent among them than among chimpanzees and orangutans.

Early hominids probably diverged from pongids that had not developed prospective adaptations to knuckle-walking, and therefore did not evolve through a knuckle-walking stage. Initial adjustments to terrestrial quadrupedal locomotion and resting stance probably included palmigrade hand posturing. Their thumbs may have been already well developed as an adaptation for grasping during arboreal climbing. A combination of selection pressures for efficient terrestrial locomotor support and for object manipulation further advanced early hominid hands toward modern human configuration.

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