Postcranial skeletal development and its evolutionary implications

David Burr, Jason Organ

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


Introduction Changes in patterns of skeletal growth and development have taken a back seat to attempts to understand morphology strictly as the result of adaptive changes in the adult form. However, small changes in genetically determined developmental patterns can have large and significant effects on adult structure (Towers and Tickle, 2009; Rolian, 2014) that may have less to do with fully adult behaviors and adaptations, and have everything to do with ensuring survival of the developing child until he or she can reach the minimum age to reproduce. Epigenetic interactions between morphological adaptations to environment and the genetic changes that are permissive to those adaptations to an unpredictable environment are complex and interrelated. Development carries out the genetic blueprint, while it also influences the variability of phenotypic expression (Rolian, 2014). Genetic alterations provide the palette of potential adaptive responses, giving the organism the flexibility to respond to its own particular environment (for the developmentalist argument, see Roseman and Weaver, 2007). Thus, growth and skeletal development do not proceed along a completely predetermined path, but can follow a variety of different paths depending on specific morphogens or other environmental factors (ten Broek et al., 2012). These environmental factors can in fact be passed along to the next generation through adaptive events that change the expression of DNA sequences that regulate development (Grossniklaus et al., 2013). Evolution involves a constant interplay between slow and seemingly random genetic changes and more rapid, predictable adaptations of body form. The goal of this chapter is to describe the mechanisms for normal human growth and development of long bones and synovial joints as a basis for understanding growth and development in an evolutionary framework. In that context, normal human growth and development can help to explain variations in body size and proportion, allometric relationships, the evolutionary limitations on somatic adaptation (see Bateson, 1963), and the diversity of primate and early human form and function. Postcranial Skeletal Development Development of the postcranial skeleton occurs through two separate processes of ossification. Bone lengthens through a program of endochondral ossification in which a cartilage “model” (or anlage) of the bone shape is produced first, and subsequently replaced by mineralized tissue. Bone width increases in part through a process of intramembranous ossification, in which the fibrocellular perichondrium (the perichondrial ring) encircling the cartilage anlage expands and mineralizes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBuilding Bones
Subtitle of host publicationBone Formation and Development in Anthropology
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9781316388907
ISBN (Print)9781107122789
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)

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    Burr, D., & Organ, J. (2017). Postcranial skeletal development and its evolutionary implications. In Building Bones: Bone Formation and Development in Anthropology (pp. 148-174). Cambridge University Press.