Pierolapithecus and the functional morphology of Miocene ape hand phalanges: paleobiological and evolutionary implications

Sergio Almécija, David M. Alba, Salvador Moyà-Solà

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The partial skeleton of Pierolapithecus, which provides the oldest unequivocal evidence of orthogrady, together with the recently described phalanges from Paşalar most likely attributable to Griphopithecus, provide a unique opportunity for understanding the changes in hand anatomy during the pronogrady/orthogrady transition in hominoid evolution. In this paper, we describe the Pierolapithecus hand phalanges and compare their morphology and proportions with those of other Miocene apes in order to make paleobiological inferences about locomotor evolution. In particular, we investigate the orthograde/pronograde evolutionary transition in order to test whether the acquisition of vertical climbing and suspension were decoupled during evolution. Our results indicate that the manual phalanges of Miocene apes are much more similar to one another than to living apes. In particular, Miocene apes retain primitive features related to powerful-grasping palmigrady on the basal portion, the shaft, and the trochlea of the proximal phalanges. These features suggest that above-branch quadrupedalism, inherited from stem hominoids, constituted a significant component of the locomotor repertories of different hominoid lineages at least until the late Miocene. Nonetheless, despite their striking morphological similarities, several Miocene apes do significantly differ in phalangeal curvature and/or elongation. Hispanopithecus most clearly departs by displaying markedly-curved and elongated phalanges, similar to those in the most suspensory of the extant apes (hylobatids and orangutans). This feature agrees with several others that indicate orang-like suspensory capabilities. The remaining Miocene apes, on the contrary, display low to moderate phalangeal curvature, and short to moderately-elongated phalanges, which are indicative of the lack of suspensory adaptations. As such, the transition from a pronograde towards an orthograde body plan, as far as this particular anatomical region is concerned, is reflected only in somewhat more elongated phalanges, which may be functionally related to enhanced vertical-climbing capabilities. Our results therefore agree with the view that hominoid locomotor evolution largely took place in a mosaic fashion: just as taillessness antedated the acquisition of an orthograde body plan, the emergence of the latter-being apparently related only to vertical climbing-also preceded the acquisition of suspensory adaptations, as well as the loss of primitively-retained, palmigrady-related features. © 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)284-297
JournalJournal of Human Evolution
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2009


  • Great apes
  • Griphopithecus
  • Hand morphology
  • Hispanopithecus
  • Locomotion


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