The cranial base of Australopithecus afarensis: New insights from the female skull

William Kimbel, Yoel Rak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Cranial base morphology differs among hominoids in ways that are usually attributed to some combination of an enlarged brain, retracted face and upright locomotion in humans. The human foramen magnum is anteriorly inclined and, with the occipital condyles, is forwardly located on a broad, short and flexed basicranium; the petrous elements are coronally rotated; the glenoid region is topographically complex; the nuchal lines are low; and the nuchal plane is horizontal. Australopithecus afarensis (3.7-3.0 Ma) is the earliest known species of the australopith grade in which the adult cranial base can be assessed comprehensively. This region of the adult skull was known from fragments in the 1970s, but renewed fieldwork beginning in the 1990s at the Hadar site, Ethiopia (3.4-3.0 Ma), recovered two nearly complete crania and major portions of a third, each associated with a mandible. These new specimens confirm that in small-brained, bipedal Australopithecus the foramen magnum and occipital condyles were anteriorly sited, as in humans, but without the foramen's forward inclination. In the large male A.L. 444-2 this is associated with a short basal axis, a bilateral expansion of the base, and an inferiorly rotated, flexed occipital squama-all derived characters shared by later australopiths and humans. However, in A.L. 822-1 (a female) a more primitive morphology is present: although the foramen and condyles reside anteriorly on a short base, the nuchal lines are very high, the nuchal plane is very steep, and the base is as relatively narrow centrally. A.L. 822-1 illuminates fragmentary specimens in the 1970s Hadar collection that hint at aspects of this primitive suite, suggesting that it is a common pattern in the A. afarensis hypodigm. We explore the implications of these specimens for sexual dimorphism and evolutionary scenarios of functional integration in the hominin cranial base.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3365-3376
Number of pages12
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1556
StatePublished - Oct 27 2010


  • Australopithecus
  • Bipedality
  • Cranial base

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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