Mandibular corpora are well represented in the hominin fossil record, yet few studies have rigorously assessed the utility of mandibular corpus morphology for species recognition, particularly with respect to the linear dimensions that are most commonly available. In this study, we explored the extent to which commonly preserved mandibular corpus morphology can be used to: (i) discriminate among extant hominid taxa and (ii) support species designations among fossil specimens assigned to the genus Homo. In the first part of the study, discriminant analysis was used to test for significant differences in mandibular corpus shape at different taxonomic levels (genus, species and subspecies) among extant hominid taxa (i.e. Homo, Pan, Gorilla, Pongo). In the second part of the study, we examined shape variation among fossil mandibles assigned to Homo(including H. habilis sensu stricto, H. rudolfensis, early African H. erectus/H. ergaster, late African H. erectus, Asian H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens). A novel randomization procedure designed for small samples (and using group ‘distinctness values’) was used to determine whether shape variation among the fossils is consistent with conventional taxonomy (or alternatively, whether a priori taxonomic groupings are completely random with respect to mandibular morphology). The randomization of ‘distinctness values’ was also used on the extant samples to assess the ability of the test to recognize known taxa. The discriminant analysis results demonstrated that, even for a relatively modest set of traditional mandibular corpus measurements, we can detect significant differences among extant hominids at the genus and species levels, and, in some cases, also at the subspecies level. Although the randomization of ‘distinctness values’ test is more conservative than discriminant analysis (based on comparisons with extant specimens), we were able to detect at least four distinct groups among the fossil specimens (i.e. H. sapiens, H. heidelbergensis, Asian H. erectus and a combined ‘African Homo’ group consisting of H. habilis sensu stricto, H. rudolfensis, early African H. erectus/H. ergaster and late African H. erectus). These four groups appear to be distinct at a level similar to, or greater than, that of modern hominid species. In addition, the mandibular corpora of H. neanderthalensis could be distinguished from those of ‘African Homo’, although not from those of H. sapiens, H. heidelbergensis, or the Asian H. erectus group. The results suggest that the features most commonly preserved on the hominin mandibular corpus have some taxonomic utility, although they are unlikely to be useful in generating a reliable alpha taxonomy for early African members of the genus Homo
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