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Keywords:

  • Bergmann's rule;
  • climate;
  • clothing;
  • femur;
  • leg dominance;
  • neck-shaft angle

Abstract

The femoral neck-shaft angle (NSA) varies among modern humans but measurement problems and sampling limitations have precluded the identification of factors contributing to its variation at the population level. Potential sources of variation include sex, age, side (left or right), regional differences in body shape due to climatic adaptation, and the effects of habitual activity patterns (e.g. mobile and sedentary lifestyles and foraging, agricultural, and urban economies). In this study we addressed these issues, using consistent methods to assemble a global NSA database comprising over 8000 femora representing 100 human groups. Results from the analyses show an average NSA for modern humans of 127° (markedly lower than the accepted value of 135°); there is no sex difference, no age-related change in adults, but possibly a small lateral difference which could be due to right leg dominance. Climatic trends consistent with principles based on Bergmann's rule are evident at the global and continental levels, with the NSA varying in relation to other body shape indices: median NSA, for instance, is higher in warmer regions, notably in the Pacific (130°), whereas lower values (associated with a more stocky body build) are found in regions where ancestral populations were exposed to colder conditions, in Europe (126°) and the Americas (125°). There is a modest trend towards increasing NSA with the economic transitions from forager to agricultural and urban lifestyles and, to a lesser extent, from a mobile to a sedentary existence. However, the main trend associated with these transitions is a progressive narrowing in the range of variation in the NSA, which may be attributable to thermal insulation provided by improved cultural buffering from climate, particularly clothing.