Petite bodies of the “robust” australopithecines



The “robust” australopithecines are often depicted as having large and powerfully built bodies to match their massive masticatory apparatus, but until 1988 the sample of postcranial remains attributed with certainty to this group was very limited. Almost nothing was known about the body of the East African “robust” australopithecine because taxonomic attribution of the postcrania was so uncertain. The body of the South African “robust” australopithecine had to be reconstructed from about a dozen isolated fragments of postcrania. Now a partial skeleton is attributed with confidence to the East African “robust” group along with several isolated bones. The South African sample has more than tripled.

Analyses of this vastly expanded sample reveal that a large portion of postcrania attributed to “robust” australopithecines from Swartkrans Member 1 (35%) are from extraordinarily small-bodied individuals similar in size to a modern Pygmy weighing as little as 28 kg. These small elements include parts from the forelimb, spine, and hindlimb. About 22% of these Swartkrans 1 “robust” australopithecines are about the same size as a modern human weighing about 43 kgs and about 43% are larger than this standard but less than or equal to a 54 kg modern human. Approximately the same pattern is true for the Swartkrans 2 hominids, but taxonomic attribution is less certain. All of the Member 3 specimens are similar in size to the 45 kg standard. The partial skeleton of the East African “robust” australopithecine (KNM-ER 1500) has hindlimb joints that would correspond to a modern human of 34 kgs although the actual weight may be 5 to 10 kgs greater judging from shaft robusticity and forelimb size. The largest postcranial element attributed with some certainty to the East African “robust” australopithecine group (the talus, KNM-ER 1464) is about the same overall size as a modern human of 54 kgs, although its tibial facet is slightly smaller.

Although many previous studies have hinted at the possibility that “robust” australopithecines had relatively small bodies, the new fossils provide substantial evidence that these creatures ranged from quite small to only moderate in body size relative to modern humans. These were the petite-bodied vegetarian cousins of our ancestors. Sexual dimorphism in body size appears to be greater than that in modern humans, similar to that in Pan, and less than that in Gorilla or Pongo, although such comparisons are of limited value given the small samples, poorly known body proportions, time averaging, and many other problems.