Shape analysis of the StW 578 calotte from Jacovec Cavern, Gauteng (South Africa)
Keywords:Australopithecus, Sterkfontein Caves, cranial morphology, surface-based comparison
The fossiliferous deposits within the lower-lying Jacovec Cavern in the locality of Sterkfontein yielded valuable hominin remains, including the StW 578 specimen. Because StW 578 mainly preserves the calotte, the taxonomic status of this specimen has been a matter of discussion. Within this context, here we employed high-resolution microtomography and a landmark-free registration method to explore taxonomically diagnostic features in the external surface of the StW 578 calotte. Our comparative sample included adult humans and common chimpanzees as well as one Australopithecus africanus specimen (Sts 5). We partially restored the StW 578 calotte digitally and compared it to extant specimens and Sts 5 using a landmark-free registration based on smooth and invertible surface deformation. Our comparative shape analysis reveals morphological differences with extant humans, especially in the frontal bones, and with extant chimpanzees, as well as intriguing specificities in the morphology of the StW 578 parietal bones. Lastly, our study suggests morphological proximity between StW 578 and Sts 5. Given the intimate relationship between the brain and the braincase, as well as the integration of the hominin face and neurocranium, we suggest that cranial vault shape differences between StW 578 and extant humans, if confirmed by further analyses, could be either explained by differences in brain surface morphology or in the face. Besides providing additional information about the morphology of the Jacovec calotte that will be useful in future taxonomic discussion, this study introduces a new protocol for the landmark-free analysis of fossil hominin cranial shape.
- We provide further information on the enigmatic fossil specimen StW 578.
- We introduce a new approach for the morphological study of fossil hominin crania.
- We highlight morphological similarities between StW 578 and ‘Mrs Ples’.
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