Document Type

Open Access Article


The "negrito" and African "pygmy" phenotypes are predominately exhibited by hunter-gatherers living in rainforest habitats. Foraging within such habitats is associated with a unique set of locomotor behaviors, most notably habitual vertical climbing during the pursuit of honey, fruit, and game. When performed frequently, this behavior is expected to correlate with developmentally plastic skeletal morphologies that respond to mechanical loading. Using six measurements in the distal tibia and talus that discriminate nonhuman primates by vertical climbing frequency, we tested the prediction that intraspecific variation in this behavior is reflected in the morphology of the ankle joint of habitually climbing human populations. First, to explore the plasticity of climbing-linked morphologies, we made comparisons between chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans from wild and captive settings. The analysis revealed significant differences in two climbing-linked traits (anterior expansion of the articular surface of the distal tibia and increased degree of talar wedging), indicating that these traits are sensitive to climbing behavior. However, our analyses did not reveal any signatures of climbing behavior in the ankles of habitually climbing hunter-gatherers. These results suggest that the detection of fine-grained differences in human locomotor behaviors at the ankle joint, particularly those associated with arboreality, may be obscured by the functional demands of terrestrial bipedalism. Accordingly, it may be difficult to use population-level characteristics of ankle morphology to make inferences about the climbing behavior of hominins in the fossil record, even when facultative arborealism is associated with key fitness benefits.