birth; Australopithecus; neonatal


Anthropology | Medicine and Health Sciences


Birth mechanics in early hominins are often reconstructed based on cephalopelvic proportions, with little attention paid to neonatal shoulders. Here, we find that neonatal biacromial breadth can be estimated from adult clavicular length (R2 = 0.80) in primates. Using this relationship and clavicular length from adult Australopithecus afarensis, we estimate biacromial breadth in neonatal australopiths. Combined with neonatal head dimensions, we reconstruct birth in A. afarensis (A.L. 288-1 or Lucy) and find that the most likely mechanism of birth in this early hominin was a semi-rotational oblique birth in which the head engaged and passed through the inlet transversely, but then rotated so that the head and shoulders remained perpendicular and progressed through the midplane and outlet oblique to the main axis of the female pelvis. Any other mechanism of birth, including asynclitic birth, would have resulted in either the head or the shoulders orthogonal to the short anteroposterior dimension of the A.L. 288-1 pelvis, making birth untenable. There is a tight fit between the infant and all planes of the birth canal, perhaps suggesting a difficult labor in australopiths. However, the rotational birth mechanism of large-brained humans today was likely not characteristic of A. afarensis. Thus, the evolution of rotational birth, usually associated with encephalization, may have occurred in two stages: the first appeared with the origin of the australopiths with their platypelloid pelves adapted for bipedalism and their broad-shouldered neonates; the second which resulted in the modern mechanism of rotational birth may be associated with increasing brain size in the genus Homo. Anat Rec, 300:890–899, 2017.

Original Citation

DeSilva, J. M., Laudicina, N. M., Rosenberg, K. R., & Trevathan, W. R. (2017). Neonatal Shoulder Width Suggests a Semirotational, Oblique Birth Mechanism in Australopithecus afarensis. Anatomical Record (Hoboken, N.J. : 2007), 300(5), 890–899.