Evolution of the human hand: approaches to acquiring, analysing and interpreting the anatomical evidence


Correspondence to Dr Mary W. Marzke, Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University, PO Box 872402, Tempe, AZ 85287-2402, USA.


The discovery of fossil hand bones from an early human ancestor at Olduvai Gorge in 1960, at the same level as primitive stone tools, generated a debate about the role of tools in the evolution of the human hand that has raged to the present day. Could the Olduvai hand have made the tools? Did the human hand evolve as an adaptation to tool making and tool use? The debate has been fueled by anatomical studies comparing living and fossil human and nonhuman primate hands, and by experimental observations. These have assessed the relative abilities of apes and humans to manufacture the Oldowan tools, but consensus has been hampered by disagreements about how to translate experimental data from living species into quantitative models for predicting the performance of fossil hands. Such models are now beginning to take shape as new techniques are applied to the capture, management and analysis of data on kinetic and kinematic variables ranging from hand joint structure, muscle mechanics, and the distribution and density of bone to joint movements and muscle recruitment during manipulative behaviour. The systematic comparative studies are highlighting a functional complex of features in the human hand facilitating a distinctive repertoire of grips that are apparently more effective for stone tool making than grips characterising various nonhuman primate species. The new techniques are identifying skeletal variables whose form may provide clues to the potential of fossil hominid hands for one-handed firm precision grips and fine precision manoeuvering movements, both of which are essential for habitual and effective tool making and tool use.