Climatic adaptation and hominid evolution: The thermoregulatory imperative

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Anthropologists have long recognized the existence among modern humans of geographical variations in body form that parallel climatic gradients, part of more general zoological phenomena commonly referred to as Bergmann's or Allen's “Rules”. These observations have rarely been applied to earlier hominids, in part because fossil skeletons usually are so incomplete that it is difficult to reconstruct body morphology accurately. However, within the past two decades two early hominids have been discovered that preserve enough of the skeleton to allow confident assessment of their body size and shape. Comparison of these specimens—the Australopithecus afarensis A.L. 288‐1 (“Lucy”) and the Homo erectus KNM‐WT 15000—with others that are less complete make it evident that the evolution of Homo erectus was accompanied by not only a marked increase in body size, but also a similarly dramatic increase in the linearity of body form. That is, relative to their heights, small australopithecines had very broad bodies, whereas large early Homo had narrow bodies. This difference in body form cannot be explained on the basis of obstetric or biomechanical factors, but is consistent with thermoregulatory constraints on body shape. Specifically, to maintain the same ratio of body surface area to body mass, which is an important thermoregulatory mechanism, increases in height should be accompanied by no change in body breadth, which is exactly what is seen in comparisons of A.L. 288‐1 and KNM‐WT 15000. Conversely, Neandertals living in colder climates had much wider bodies, which are adaptive for heat retention. Differences in limb length proportions between fossil hominids are also consistent with thermoregulatory principles and the geographic variation observed among modern humans. Climatic adaptation during hominid evolution may have wide‐ranging implications, not only with regard to interpreting body morphology, but also in relation to ecological scenarios, population movements, and the evolution of the brain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)53-60
Number of pages8
JournalEvolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1993


  • Australopithecus
  • Homo erectus
  • ecogeographical rules

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology


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