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Functional Inference in Paleoanthropology

Functional Inference in Paleoanthropology

Theory and Practice

In this deep examination of functional morphology, a renowned paleoanthropologist offers a new way to investigate human evolution through the fossil record.

It is quite common for two functional anatomists to examine the exact same fossil material, yet argue over its evolutionary significance. How can this be?

Traditionally, paleoanthropology has interpreted hominin fossil morphology by first considering the ecological challenges hominins faced, then drawing adaptive inferences based on the idea that skeletal morphology is a more or less direct reflection of paleoecology. In Functional Inference in Paleoanthropology, David J. Daegling suggests that researchers can resolve dichotomous interpretations of the fossil record by instead focusing on the biology and development of the bones themselves—such as measurable responses to deformations, stresses, and damage—whether or not they were optimal for a given environment. Critically exploring how scientists probe and interpret fossil morphology for behavioral and adaptive inferences in the human fossil record, Daegling makes the case that a mechanobiological perspective is essential for understanding how the skeleton develops and evolves. He also posits that an intelligible science of functional morphology in the fossil record is impossible without this perspective.

Drawing on historical examples from long-standing debates on the emergence of bipedality and the dietary shifts that facilitated the emergence of the hominin clade, Daegling traces the disjunctions between theoretical principles of comparative morphology and methodological practice in the paleontological context of human evolution. Sharing rich findings uncovered in recent decades from research in skeletal biomechanics, Functional Inference in Paleoanthropology examines how bone adapts over the lifespan, what environmental factors influence its quality, and how developmental constraints limit the skeleton's adaptive potential over evolutionary time.