The strong relationship between M1 emergence age and life history across primates provides a means of reconstructing fossil life history. The underlying process that leads to varying molar emergence schedules, however, remains elusive. Using three-dimensional data to quantify masticatory form in ontogenetic samples representing 21 primate species, we test the hypothesis that the location and timing of molar emergence are constrained to avoid potentially dangerous distractive forces at the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) throughout growth. We show that (i) molars emerge in a predictable position to safeguard the TMJ, (ii) the rate and duration of jaw growth determine the timing of molar emergence, and (iii) the rate and cessation age of jaw growth is related to life history. Thus, orofacial development is constrained by biomechanics throughout ontogeny. This integrative perspective on primate skull growth is consistent with a long sought-after causal explanation underlying the correlation between molar emergence and life history.
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