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Planet Earth

H. sapiens sapiens give birth differently

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanApril 21, 2009 4:56 PM

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Neandertal birth canal shape and the evolution of human childbirth:

Childbirth is complicated in humans relative to other primates. Unlike the situation in great apes, human neonates are about the same size as the birth canal, making passage difficult. The birth mechanism (the series of rotations that the neonate must undergo to successfully negotiate its mother's birth canal) distinguishes humans not only from great apes, but also from lesser apes and monkeys. Tracing the evolution of human childbirth is difficult, because the pelvic skeleton, which forms the margins of the birth canal, tends to survive poorly in the fossil record. Only 3 female individuals preserve fairly complete birth canals, and they all date to earlier phases of human evolution. Here we present a virtual reconstruction of a female Neandertal pelvis from Tabun, Israel. The size of Tabun's reconstructed birth canal indicates that childbirth was about as difficult in Neandertals as in present-day humans, but the canal's shape indicates that Neandertals had a more primitive birth mechanism. A significant shift in childbirth apparently occurred quite late in human evolution, during the last few hundred thousand years. Such a late shift underscores the uniqueness of human childbirth and the divergent evolutionary trajectories of Neandertals and the lineage leading to present-day humans.

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