Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Forty Years on and Still Going Strong: The Use of Hominin-Cercopithecid Comparisons in Palaeoanthropology

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Forty Years on and Still Going Strong: The Use of Hominin-Cercopithecid Comparisons in Palaeoanthropology

Article excerpt

Palaeoanthropologists reconstruct the biologies and behaviours of hominin species that are, in most cases, extinct. The evidence of past life available from the palaeontological and archaeological records is fragmentary both at the individual level and at the species level, representing only a very small proportion of total variation.

Observations on modern humans are used in palaeoanthropological reconstruction, through, for example, gatherer-hunter models of resource acquisition in fossil humans (Binford 1981; Lee & DeVore 1968; Tanner 1981). Modern human skeletal material is also used routinely in morphological studies. Since modern human data only provide one perspective on human evolutionary history, non-human primates are also obvious comparators as they are the mammalian group with which modern humans share the greatest number of biological characteristics and the longest evolutionary history (Foley 1987). Primate palaeoanthropological comparators can be chosen either on the basis of ecological similarity or because of close evolutionary relationships. For many palaeoanthropological studies, the great apes are the 'default' comparative sample. Of all the primates, they are the most closely related to humans. They also are big-brained, cognitively sophisticated (Tomasello & Call 1997), have the rudiments of culture (McGrew 1992), and share the orthograde posture of humans, leading to various morphological as well as cognitive similarities.

However, the apes are by no means the only primate comparators available to palaeoanthropologists. Cercopithecids, or Old World monkeys, share a large number of behavioural and ecological features with hominins. Like humans and some earlier hominins, they are extremely successful in terms of both biomass and geographic coverage. Unlike the great apes, they generally respond quickly to habitat change and often co-exist with humans. Opportunistic, eclectic feeding ('omnivory') contributes to this flexibility. Many cercopithecids are primarily adapted to relatively open habitats, such as grassland and woodland, but are also observed using more closed habitats (Rowell 1966). It is increasingly apparent that Plio-Pleistocene hominins may have used a variety of open and closed habitats (Reed 1997; WoldeGabriel et al. 2001), so cercopithecids might be more ecologically similar to hominins than are apes. Given these factors, larger numbers of researchers are now using cercopithecid comparators.

In the first part of this article the history of cercopithecid models in palaeoanthropology is outlined. The advantages and disadvantages of using cercopithecids in comparative frameworks are explored with an emphasis on their use in ecological and behavioural reconstruction, as a discussion of primate models for human physiology or neurobiology is beyond the scope of this article. In the second part the ecology and inter-specific dynamics of Plio-Pleistocene hominins from East Africa are examined using cercopithecid referents. The interactions between contemporary species of hominins, cercopithecids, and other large mammals are also considered. This moves away from the traditional use of cercopithecids as referential models, considering them instead alongside hominins as actors in complex ecosystems.

The history of cercopithecid comparisons in human evolution

Research into chimpanzee ecology and behaviour has a relatively short history; baboons, in fact, were the first primates to be used in models of human evolution. Cercopithecid-hominin comparisons became prominent in the 1960s and enjoyed over a decade of popularity. In the late 1970s and 1980s, they tended to be replaced by ape models because of the closer evolutionary relationship apes had with humans and also due to increasing knowledge of ape ecology and behaviour (Tanner 1981). However, confidence in the hominin-cercopithecid comparison is currently re-emerging, and as it does, the range of comparative species grows. …

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