UCL News


Origins of the species

14 June 2004

A new study at UCL's Department of Anthropology seeks to throw some more light on the origins of our ape relatives and earliest ancestors.

Dr Charles Lockwood Dr Charles Lockwood, in collaboration with Dr William Kimbel and Dr John Lynch of Arizona State University, has developed a new application for a methodology - known as geometric morphometric analysis - and tested it using the shape of human and ape temporal bones.

Although the evolutionary tree of humans and great apes has been well researched from a genetic point of view, this method allows for another type of investigation, especially where no DNA evidence is available. This is the case with early fossil hominids, whose relationships to each other remains unclear.

Dr Lockwood says: "In this work we aimed to link modern quantitative methods, which are undergoing something of a revolution, with the analysis of a particular part of the skull, the temporal bone. This bone acts as a kind of keystone to the skull and because of its unique place in the skull, where the ear bones connect with the jaw, its shape says a lot about a species."

The method allows for the comparison of 22 'landmarks', which are like points on a three-dimensional map of the bone, to arrive at clear evolutionary relationships. To date, the results have agreed with genetic studies of human and ape evolutionary history, which points to the closer relationship of humans with chimpanzees, as well as illustrating the rich diversity among African ape populations.

Dr Lockwood explains: "In the past, methods of comparing bone forms have been largely subjective. These methods were based on simple two-dimensional measurements or angles. Geometric morphometric analysis provides a more complete method that gives us a huge amount of detail, both on the shape of the bones and what those shapes tell us about species diversity and relationships. For the first time in my experience, the quantitative methods capture what your eyes see when you compare bones to each other. To find that a small part of the skull can separate different species so effectively, as well as confirming genetic studies of evolutionary history, is truly exciting."

To find out more about the research and Dr Lockwood, use the links below.

The Study
Department of Anthropology