The evolution, form and function of the human respiratory system

J Anthropol Sci. 2022 Dec 30:100:141-172. doi: 10.4436/JASS.10014.


This paper presents an updated view on the morphological and functional significance of the human respiratory system in the context of human evolutionary anatomy. While usually the respiratory system is treated either from a craniofacial perspective, mostly in the context of nasal evolution and air-conditioning, or from a postcranial perspective featuring on overall thoracic shape changes, here we pursue a holistic perspective on the form, function, integration, and evolutionary change of the entire organismal system in hominins. We first present a brief review of the most important morphological structures, their function, and its potential integration and interaction with the nasal cavity and thoracic skeleton. This is followed by an overview of the most important improvements in methods for the comparative study in recent humans and fossil hominins. We then overview and list a compendium of hominin fossil material currently available for the study. We propose four functional categories of hominin respiratory system configurations that differ potentially with respect to size, shape, biomechanics and/or bioenergetics. Finally, we discuss these and speculate on possible ways for future research into an anatomical system that, despite its under-investigated status, is central to the understanding of the form and functions of the hominin organism and its paleobiology.

Keywords: 3D Virtual morphology; Human evolution; Morphometrics; Paleoanthropology; Paleophysiology; Respiratory system.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Fossils
  • Hominidae* / anatomy & histology
  • Humans
  • Respiratory System