Take-home points from the paper include:
- Many purported 'knuckle-walking' features of the hominoid wrist might rather indicate arboreal wrist postures
- Knuckle-walking in Pan and Gorilla are biomechanically distinct, and may thus have evolved independently in each lineage
- More tentatively: Humans may not have evolved from a knuckle-walking ancestor, lending further credence to the idea that Pan is not a great model for the Pan-human common ancestor
- This may be another example of one of Futuyma's Principles of Evolution: HOMOPLASY IS COMMON IN EVOLUTION
But Tracey Kivell and Dan Schmitt present evidence from the wrist that suggests knuckle-walking in Pan and Gorilla are biomechanically and developmentally distinct. They point to several features of the wrist bones (carpals) that have traditionally been assumed to reflect knuckle-walking behavior. The expression of these features does not fit expectations given size and maturation differences between the two African apes. In fact, most of the features are more common/pronounced in Pan, and sometimes even other primates, more so than in Gorilla. The authors thus posit that many of the hitherto-knuckle-walking features of the wrist are actually indicative of arboreal wrist postures, and not knuckle-walking.
That authors acknowledge that it is possible that the wrist differences between Pan and do not necessarily preclude the possibility that knuckle-walking in the two apes has a common, ancestral origin, and that the differences accumulated after the evolutionary split between Gorilla on the one hand and Pan-humans on the other. That is to say, the behavior in the apes is homologous (as in common ancestry) but non-identical. Another possibility, which would also indicate that humans did evolve from a knuckle-walking ancestor, is that the behavior evolved separately in the Gorilla lineage, and in the Pan-hominin lineage before the split between Pan on the one hand and hominins on the other. The only way to test such a hypothesis is with fossils, fossils which so far as I know we do not have (yet).
Kivell T and Schmitt D. Independent evolution of knuckle-walking in African apes shows that humans did not evolve from a knuckle-walking ancestor. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in press.