Morphological Integration and the Interpretation of Fossil Hominin Diversity
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- Ackermann, R.R. Evol Biol (2009) 36: 149. doi:10.1007/s11692-009-9050-2
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The fossil record of primate and human evolution cannot provide accurate estimates of within species variation and integration. This means that we cannot directly observe how patterns of integration have evolved over time in this lineage. And yet, our interpretations of fossil diversity are awash with assumptions about variation patterning in precisely these fossil taxa. Most commonly, researchers rely on extant models of variation for interpreting past diversity, by assuming equality of variation (and occasionally covariation) among extant and fossil populations. Yet one of the things we know from studies of integration in primates is that patterns of morphological covariation can differ among even closely related taxa, indicating that they have diverged over evolutionary time, either in response to selection or as the result of neutral evolution. At the same time, overall patterns of integration remain remarkably similar, meaning that in many respects they are highly conserved evolutionarily. Taken together, these seemingly contradictory observations offer an important conceptual framework for interpreting patterns that we observe in the fossil past. This framework dictates that while we can use patterns of covariation in extant taxa as proxies for extinct diversity, and indeed their conserved nature makes them superior to approaches that rely on variation alone, we also need to account for the fact that such patterns change over time, and incorporate that into our models. Here I provide examples using covariation patterns estimated from modern humans and African great apes to demonstrate the extent to which divergence in covariance structure might affect our interpretations of hominin diversity.