Evolution and homologies of primate and modern human hand and forearm muscles, with notes on thumb movements and tool use

May 1, 2012

In this paper, we explore how the results of a primate-wide higher-level phylogenetic analysis of muscle characters can improve our understanding of the evolution and homologies of the forearm and hand muscles of modern humans. Contrary to what is often suggested in the literature, none of the forearm and hand muscle structures usually present in modern humans are autapomorphic. All are found in one or more extant non-human primate taxa. What is unique is the particular combination of muscles. However, more muscles go to the thumb in modern humans than in almost all other primates, reinforcing the hypothesis that focal thumb movements probably played an important role in human evolution. What makes the modern human thumb myology special within the primate clade is not so much its intrinsic musculature but two extrinsic muscles, extensor pollicis brevis and flexor pollicis longus, that are otherwise only found in hylobatids. It is likely that these two forearm muscles play different functional roles in hylobatids and modern humans. In the former, the thumb is separated from elongated digits by a deep cleft and there is no pulp-to-pulp opposition, whereas modern humans exhibit powerful thumb flexion and greater manipulative abilities, such as those involved in the manufacture and use of tools. The functional and evolutionary significance of a third peculiar structure, the intrinsic hand structure that is often called the 'interosseous volaris primus of Henle' (and which we suggest is referred to as the musculus adductor pollicis accessorius) is still obscure. The presence of distinct contrahentes digitorum and intermetacarpales in adult chimpanzees is likely the result of prolonged or delayed development of the hand musculature of these apes. In relation to these structures, extant chimpanzees are more neotenic than modern humans.