Comparative primate birth mechanics and the evolution of human childbirth
Laudicina, Natalie Marie
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Modern humans have large, encephalized neonates, delivered through an anteroposteriorly narrow maternal pelvis constrained by adaptation to bipedality. As a result, human birth is unusually laborious, difficult, and dangerous. The evolutionary background for these difficulties is unclear. Previous comparative studies of nonhuman primates have focused on the pelvic inlet, which is a region of constraint in humans but not in other primates. Therefore, the true obstetric constraints in other species remain unknown. This dissertation documents and quantifies human and other primate birth-canal morphology between the three traditional obstetric planes (inlet, midplane, and outlet). Computer-generated images of scanned specimens of 23 extant anthropoid species and five fossil hominins are used to compare the entire birth canals as three-dimensional entities, documenting and analyzing the functionally relevant metrics of the maternal pelvis and the fetus and their species-specific obstetric constraints. In fossil hominin species for which pelvic material is fragmentary, composite pelves were reconstructed. Measurements on these pelves allow for an estimation of the factors (fetal head and shoulders, pelvic morphology) that produce points of potential dystocia, and shed light on how the modern human birth mechanism evolved. The results of these analyses indicate that some non-human primates have obstetric constraints that exceed those of modern humans. The cephalopelvic disproportion in these species is alleviated through various mechanisms which are unattainable in humans, such as a face-first fetal presentation. Human childbirth can no longer be described as uniquely difficult compared to that of the other primates. Among fossil hominins, birth canal morphology exhibits shape variations that differ from those in modern humans and would have promoted different patterns and mechanisms of birth. The locations of maximum obstetric constraints also vary among hominin species, and the pattern of interspecific variation does not present a linear evolutionary trajectory from “easy” to “difficult” childbirth. The risk of prolapse that accompanies hominin bipedality does result in an adaptation to reduce obstetric constraints, fetal cranial molding, which may have arisen in the hominin lineage ~700,000 years earlier than previously thought.