Nasopharyngeal morphology contributes to understanding the “muddle in the middle” of the Pleistocene hominin fossil record

Anthony S. Pagano, Christopher M. Smith, Antoine Balzeau, Samuel Márquez, Jeffrey T. Laitman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


The late archeologist Glynn Isaac first applied the term “muddle in the middle” to a poorly understood period in the Middle Pleistocene human fossil record. This study uses the nasopharyngeal boundaries as a source of traits that may inform this unclear period of human evolution. The nasopharynx lies at the nexus of several vital physiological systems, yet relatively little is known about its importance in human evolution. We analyzed a geographically diverse contemporary Homo sapiens growth series (n = 180 adults, 237 nonadults), Homo neanderthalensis (La Chapelle aux Saints 1, La Ferrassie 1, Forbes Quarry 1, Monte Circeo 1, and Saccopastore 1), mid-Pleistocene Homo (Atapuerca 5, Kabwe 1, Petralona 1, and Steinheim 1), and two Homo erectus sensu lato (KNM-ER 3733 and Sangiran 17). Methods include traditional (Analysis 1) and 3D geometric morphometric analysis (Analysis 2). H. erectus exhibited tall, narrow nasopharyngeal shape, a robust, ancestral morphology. Kabwe 1 and Petralona 1 plotted among H. sapiens in Analysis 2, exhibiting relatively shorter and vertical cartilaginous Eustachian tubes and vertical medial pterygoid plates. Atapuerca 5 and Steinheim 1 exhibited horizontal vomeral orientation similar to H. neanderthalensis, indicating greater relative soft palate length and anteroposterior nasopharynx expansion. They may exhibit synapomorphies with H. neanderthalensis, supporting the accretionary hypothesis. Species-level differences were found among H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis, including relatively longer dilator tubae muscles and extreme facial airorhynchy among Neanderthals. Furthermore, H. neanderthalensis were autapomorphic in exhibiting horizontal pterygoid plate orientation similar to human infants, suggesting that they may have had inferiorly low placement of the torus tubarius and Eustachian tube orifice on the lateral nasopharyngeal wall in life. This study supports use of osseous nasopharyngeal boundaries both for morphological characters and understanding evolution of otitis media susceptibility in living humans.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2038-2064
Number of pages27
JournalAnatomical Record
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2022


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