Research reveals the link between primate knuckles and hand use

May 29, 2019

Research carried out by the University of Kent has found differences between the knuckle joints of primates that will enable a better understanding of ancient human hand use.

Using samples from the Powell-Cotton Museum in Birchington-on-Sea (UK), as well as samples from Germany, Belgium and the USA, a team led by School of Anthropology and Conservation (SAC) PhD student Christopher Dunmore examined the internal bone structure, called trabeculae or cancellous bone, of great apes.

Trabecular bone is a honeycomb structure that is found within most bones and changes depending on what that bone is used for during a lifetime. When it is preserved in fossils, researchers can learn more about how ancient apes as well as humans moved and interacted with their environment.

The study compared the internal bone structure of the knuckle joints in chimpanzee, bonobo, orang-utan and gorilla hands, to assess whether this bone structure records how these apes moved when knuckle-walking on the ground or hanging from trees.

The researchers found the knuckle joints of orang-utans were consistent with flexing the knuckles while grasping branches, while the joints of chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas were consistent with knuckle-walking - the most frequent ways in which these animals move around in their respective environments.

The information will now enable scientists studying fossils to better understand whether ancient humans were swinging from trees or walking on the ground.

Mr Dunmore said: 'For the first time we see interesting internal bone patterns differentiating subtle differences between chimpanzee and gorilla knuckle-walking, as well as arboreal grasping in orang-utans. This matters because when we find ancient human hand fossils that preserve their internal structure, we can work out if they were probably swinging from trees during their lifetime or if they were walking on the ground more like humans today.'
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The study, entitled Metacarpal trabecular bone varies with distinct hand-positions used in hominid locomotion (Christopher Dunmore, Dr Ameline Bardo, Professor Tracy Kivell and Dr Matthew Skinner, Skeletal Biology Research Centre, SAC, University of Kent) was published in the Journal of Anatomy.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31099419

For further information and interview or image requests contact Sandy Fleming at the University of Kent Press Office.
Tel: +44 (0)1227 823581
Email: S.Fleming@kent.ac.uk

News releases can also be found at http://www.kent.ac.uk/news

University of Kent on Twitter: http://twitter.com/UniKent

Established in 1965, the University of Kent - the UK's European university - now has almost 20,000 students across campuses or study centres at Canterbury, Medway, Tonbridge, Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome.

It was ranked 22nd in the Guardian University Guide 2018 and in June 2017 was awarded a gold rating, the highest, in the UK Government's Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

In 2018 it was also ranked in the top 500 of Shanghai Ranking's Academic Ranking of World Universities and 47th in the Times Higher Education's (THE) new European Teaching Rankings.

Kent is ranked 17th in the UK for research intensity (REF 2014). It has world-leading research in all subjects and 97% of its research is deemed by the REF to be of international quality.

Along with the universities of East Anglia and Essex, Kent is a member of the Eastern Arc Research Consortium (http://www.kent.ac.uk/about/partnerships/eastern-arc.html).

The University is worth £0.7 billion to the economy of the south east and supports more than 7,800 jobs in the region. Student off-campus spend contributes £293.3m and 2,532 full-time-equivalent jobs to those totals.

Kent has received two Queen's Anniversary prizes for Higher and Further Education.

University of Kent

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