Fossil teeth reveal recent origin of human growth pattern

The long period of development leading up to a modern human's adulthood arose relatively late in our evolutionary history, according to an analysis of growth patterns in fossil teeth in the 6 December issue of the journal Nature, written by Christopher Dean of University College, London, and colleagues including Alan Walker, distinguished professor of anthropology and biology at Penn State.

"One of the things that sets modern humans apart from the living great apes is our long period of growth and development," Dean explains. "While humans take a good 18 to 20 years to grow up, other primate species like chimpanzees and gorillas take just 11 or 12 years." A supporting article, written by Jacopo Moggi-Cecchi of the University of Florence in Italy, is included in the "News and Views" section of the journal. The research was designed to determine when the prolonged growth period we have today arose during our long evolutionary history.

"Dental development is a good measure of overall growth and development," says Walker, who pioneered the study of living primates as a basis for the analysis of fossils and was one of the first to use scanning electron microscope studies of fossil teeth. "Teeth grow in an incremental manner like trees or shells, preserving a record of their growth with daily marks along the prisms that make up the enamel." By making thin sections of modern and fossil teeth, the researchers were able to count the daily incremental markings within the enamel of humans, apes, and fossil "hominin" species in the human lineage in order to calculate and compare their rates of enamel formation.

"Of the 13 fossil tooth fragments we studied--both those attributed to the earliest australopith hominins that lived roughly between 4 and 1 million years ago, and those of the earliest members of our own Homo genus that lived about 1.5 million years ago--none showed the slower pattern of modern human enamel growth," says Walker, who in

Contact: Barbara K. Kennedy
Penn State

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