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Keywords:

  • modern human variation;
  • Neanderthals;
  • climate;
  • paramasticatory behavior

Abstract

Human mandibular morphology is often thought to reflect mainly function, and to be of lesser value in studies of population history. Previous descriptions of human mandibles showed variation in ramal height and breadth to be the strongest difference among recent human groups. Several mandibular traits that differentiate Neanderthals from modern humans include greater robusticity, a receding symphysis, a large retromolar space, a rounder gonial area, an asymmetric mandibular notch, and a posteriorly positioned mental foramen in Neanderthals. Nevertheless, the degree to which these differences are part of modern human variation and/or are related to size and function remains unclear. The aim of this study was to document geographic and functional patterning in the mandibular shape of recent humans, to assess the effects of allometry on mandibular form, and to quantitatively evaluate proposed “Neanderthal” mandibular traits through comparison with samples of geographically diverse recent humans. Data were collected in the form of three-dimensional coordinates of 28 landmarks. Unlike previous studies, this analysis found that modern human mandibular shape exhibits considerable geographic patterning, with some aspects of mandibular morphology reflecting a climatic gradient, and others, a functional specialization. Population history is also reflected in mandibular form, albeit relatively weakly. Proposed “Neanderthal” traits were found to separate Neanderthal from modern human mandibles successfully in the statistical analysis. Of these, the retromolar gap was found to be related to increased mandibular size in modern humans. The status of this trait as a Neanderthal autapomorphy should therefore be treated with caution. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.