Data Acquisition, Photogrammetry & Depth processing

Mechanical loading of primate fingers on vertical rock surfaces

Data Acquisition

Photogrammetry is a low-cost method for extracting accurate measurements from photographs. It is well suited for producing 3D models of irregular surfaces, such as cave walls.36 To obtain photographs of the rock surface climbed by baboons, we used metal irrigation piping to construct a temporary T-shaped scaffold. The cross pipe was mounted at the cave opening and fixed to a vertical pipe that extended to the shaft floor (Figure 4a), where it was weighted to minimise lateral excursions. We hitched a digital camera to this pipe so that photography occurred from a fixed central axis, and we mounted ground control points to the rock surface. We abseiled into the cave to operate the camera, aiming for 80% overlap between serial photos in the horizontal and vertical planes.


We processed the image set (n=354) with Agisoft Metashape Pro (formerly Photoscan Pro), a common package used in archaeological research.37-39 Due to logistical constraints in the field, we did not record spatial data for each ground control point, so the model was scaled to real-world dimensions by using the targets as scale bars, and manually oriented. Manual orientation is suboptimal for any calculations that rely on the slope of the wall, but it should not affect the local depth calculations described below. After alignment, dense cloud construction, and texture application, we trimmed the 3D model to the area used for climbing (Figure 4b) and exported it as an orthophoto (Figure 5a) and digital elevation model (DEM) with an arbitrary local coordinate system. We brought the resulting geotiffs, both with sub-millimetre resolution, into ArcGIS and SAGA GIS for further processing and visualisation.

Depth processing

In ArcGIS, the DEM raster treats the surface of the rock wall as vertical elevation data. To calculate the local relative depth of each raster cell in the rock wall, we used focal statistics with a small neighborhood, and maximum elevation as the statistics type, to create a raster of the local maximum height of the wall, and then smoothed that raster again with focal statistics over a wider neighborhood, creating a smoothed idealised model of the maximum height of the local surface of the cave. We subtracted the original DEM from this idealised surface to find the local difference between each cell and the average nearest ‘maximum’ value. Finally, we queried this raster of local depths for cells in two ranges (11–25 mm for P. ursinus and 14–37 mm for H. naledi) and used this value to calculate the total area of each range.

Article TitleMechanical loading of primate fingers on vertical rock surfaces


Mechanical loading of finger bones (phalanges) can induce angular curvature, which benefits arboreal primates by dissipating forces and economising the recruitment of muscles during climbing. The recent discovery of extremely curved phalanges in a hominin, Homo naledi, is puzzling, for it suggests life in an arboreal milieu, or, alternatively, habitual climbing on vertical rock surfaces. The importance of climbing rock walls is attested by several populations of baboons, one of which uses a 7-m vertical surface to enter and exit Dronkvlei Cave, De Hoop Nature Reserve, South Africa. This rock surface is an attractive model for estimating the probability of extreme mechanical loading on the phalanges of rock-climbing primates. Here we use three-dimensional photogrammetry to show that 82–91% of the climbable surface would generate high forces on the flexor tendon pulley system and severely load the phalanges of baboons and H. naledi. If such proportions are representative of vertical rock surfaces elsewhere, it may be sufficient to induce stress-mitigating curvature in the phalanges of primates.

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