Two contrasting patterns of lumbar vertebral morphology generally characterize anthropoids. “Long-backed” monkeys are distinguished from “short-backed” apes [Benton: The baboon in medical research, Vol. 2 (1967:201)] with respect to several vertebral features thought to afford greater spinal flexibility in the former and spinal rigidity in the latter. Yet, discussions of spinal mobility are lacking important functional insight that can be gained by analysis of the zygapophyses, the spine's synovial joints responsible for allowing and resisting intervertebral movements. Here, prezygapophyseal articular facet (PAF) shape in the thoracolumbar spine of Papio, Hylobates, Pongo, Gorilla, and Pan is evaluated in the context of the “long-backed” versus “short-backed” model. A three-dimensional geometric morphometric approach is used to examine how PAF shape changes along the thoracolumbar vertebral column of each taxon and how PAF shape varies across taxa at corresponding vertebral levels. The thoracolumbar transition in PAF shape differs between Papio and the hominoids, between Hylobates and the great apes, and to a lesser extent, among great apes. At the level of the first lumbar vertebra, the PAF shape of Papio is distinguished from that of hominoids. At the level of the second lumbar vertebra, there is variation to some extent among all taxa. These findings suggest that morphological and functional distinctions in primate vertebral anatomy may be more complex than suggested by a “long-backed” versus “short-backed” dichotomy. Am J Phys Anthropol 142:600–612, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.