Neck function in early hominins and suspensory primates: Insights from the uncinate process
Uncinate processes are protuberances on the cranial surface of subaxial cervical vertebrae that assist in stabilizing and guiding spinal motion. Shallow uncinate processes reduce cervical stability but confer an increased range of motion in clinical studies. Here we assess uncinate processes among extant primates and model cervical kinematics in early fossil hominins. We compare six fossil hominin vertebrae with 48 Homo sapiens and 99 nonhuman primates across 20 genera. We quantify uncinate morphology via geometric morphometric methods to understand how uncinate process shape relates to allometry, taxonomy, and mode of locomotion. Across primates, allometry explains roughly 50% of shape variation, as small, narrow vertebrae feature the relatively tallest, most pronounced uncinate processes, whereas larger, wider vertebrae typically feature reduced uncinates. Taxonomy only weakly explains the residual variation, however, the association between Uncinate Shape and mode of locomotion is robust, as bipeds and suspensory primates occupy opposite extremes of the morphological continuum and are distinguished from arboreal generalists. Like humans, Australopithecus afarensis and Homo erectus exhibit shallow uncinate processes, whereas A. sediba resembles more arboreal taxa, but not fully suspensory primates. Suspensory primates exhibit the most pronounced uncinates, likely to maintain visual field stabilization. East African hominins exhibit reduced uncinate processes compared with African apes and A. sediba, likely signaling different degrees of neck motility and modes of locomotion. Although soft tissues constrain neck flexibility beyond limits suggested by osteology alone, this study may assist in modeling cervical kinematics and positional behaviors in extinct taxa.