Genetics and human skeletal variation

Published on March 18, 2015   28 min

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Hi. I'm Tim Weaver. I'm an associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. I'm also an Associated Researcher of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. In this lecture, I'm going to speak about the structure of human skeletal variation and how the structure relates to the structure of human genetic variation.
Studies of human skeletal variation have a long, and in some cases, infamous history. Attempts to classify humans into races have often emphasized differences in skull form, and many 19th and early 20th century studies of human skeletal variation have the goal of documenting differences between human groups in skeletal form, particularly in skull form. These studies were used to support racist or eugenicist agendas. Today, most interest in human skeletal variation is because the skeleton is the part of the phenotype that remains from the extinct human ancestors and close relatives that document human evolution. When an organism dies, its tissues degrade, but bones and teeth are quite hard, so they withstand this degradation better than most other parts. As a consequence, the physical record of human evolution consists almost entirely of bones and teeth. To put these paleontological finds in perspective, it is necessary to understand patterns of present-day human skeletal variation. In this context, it is also useful to study the skeletons of extant non-human primates. This photo shows the famous paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey taking a caliper measurement on a spectacular fossil skull that his wife, Mary Leakey, also a famous paleo-anthropologist, discovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.