The evolution of body size and shape in the human career
Body size is a fundamental biological property of organisms, and documenting body size variation in hominin evolution is an important goal of palaeoanthropology. Estimating body mass appears deceptively simple but is laden with theoretical and pragmatic assumptions about best predictors and the most appropriate reference samples. Modern human training samples with known masses are arguably the ‘best’ for estimating size in early bipedal hominins such as the australopiths and all members of the genus Homo, but it is not clear if they are the most appropriate priors for reconstructing the size of the earliest putative hominins such as Orrorin and Ardipithecus. The trajectory of body size evolution in the early part of the human career is reviewed here and found to be complex and nonlinear. Australopith body size varies enormously across both space and time. The pre-erectus early Homo fossil record from Africa is poor and dominated by relatively small-bodied individuals, implying that the emergence of the genus Homo is probably not linked to an increase in body size or unprecedented increases in size variation. Body size differences alone cannot explain the observed variation in hominin body shape, especially when examined in the context of small fossil hominins and pygmy modern humans.This article is part of the themed issue ‘Major transitions in human evolution’.