The third metacarpal styloid process in humans: Origin and functions

M. W. Marzke, R. F. Marzke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


The development, mechanics, and pathology of the third carpometacarpal joint have been investigated in order to explain the unique presence in humans of a styloid process on the third metacarpal. Structure and functions of the joint are compared in a large series of Old World anthropoid hand skeletons, cadavers, and X‐rays, and shown to differ in the three groups. Developmental anomalies reveal the source of the human styloid in a group of cells which fuse with the capitate in other Old World Anthropoidea. The absence of the process in Australopithecus afarensis and its presence in Neandertals suggest that an explanation for the evolution of the process may be sought in stresses on the hand in stone tool‐use. Film analysis of stone tool‐use shows that hammering and digging with hand‐held stones direct forces on the palmar aspect of the metacarpal head. From a biomechanical analysis of these forces it may be seen that the styloid process prevents subluxation of the base. The effectiveness of the process in this function is reflected by the rarity of injury and arthritis in the region. Individuals lacking the process tend to undergo degeneration of bone at the joint. Since repetitive impulsive forces on joints are known to cause osteoarthritis, it is suggested that there may be a link between the increasing reliance of early hominids on manipulative behavior that stressed this region of the hand and the evolution of a structural pattern that protects the joint from these stresses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)415-431
Number of pages17
JournalAmerican journal of physical anthropology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1987


  • Anthropoid
  • Biomechanical model
  • Hominid
  • Third metacarpal styloid process
  • Tool use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology


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