Researchers at Johns Hopkins found that use over time and not just genetics informs the structure of jaw bones in human populations. The researchers say these findings may be used to predict the diet of an ancient population, even if little evidence exists in the fossil record. It can also make it easier for scientists to pinpoint the genetic relationship between fossils.
“Our research aimed to see how much of the mandible’s — or jaw bone’s — shape is plastic, a response to environmental influences, such as diet, and how much is genetic. We used archaeological jaw bones from two different regions to answer that question,” explains Megan Holmes, graduate student at the Johns Hopkins Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution, and lead author of the paper. “Before we can make inferences about what the shape of a bone tells us, like what environment the individual lived in, who it’s related to or what it ate, we have to understand what creates that shape. The idea that function influences the shape of jaw bones is great for the archeological record in terms of discovering the diet of a population, and it’s also really useful for reconstructing the fossil record — finding which fossils are related to which, and how.”