Gracility of the modern Homo sapiens skeleton is the result of decreased biomechanical loading

Timothy M. Ryan, Colin N. Shaw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

136 Scopus citations


The postcranial skeleton of modern Homo sapiens is relatively gracile compared with other hominoids and earlier hominins. This gracility predisposes contemporary humans to osteoporosis and increased fracture risk. Explanations for this gracility include reduced levels of physical activity, the dissipation of load through enlarged joint surfaces, and selection for systemic physiological characteristics that differentiate modern humans from other primates. This study considered the skeletal remains of four behaviorally diverse recent human populations and a large sample of extant primates to assess variation in trabecular bone structure in the human hip joint. Proximal femur trabecular bone structure was quantified from microCT data for 229 individuals from 31 extant primate taxa and 59 individuals from four distinct archaeological human populations representing sedentary agriculturalists and mobile foragers. Analyses of mass-corrected trabecular bone variables reveal that the forager populations had significantly higher bone volume fraction, thicker trabeculae, and consequently lower relative bone surface area compared with the two agriculturalist groups. There were no significant differences between the agriculturalist and forager populations for trabecular spacing, number, or degree of anisotropy. These results reveal a correspondence between human behavior and bone structure in the proximal femur, indicating that more highly mobile human populations have trabecular bone structure similar to what would be expected for wild nonhuman primates of the same body mass. These results strongly emphasize the importance of physical activity and exercise for bone health and the attenuation of age-related bone loss.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)372-377
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 13 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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