Aural exostoses (surfer’s ear) provide vital fossil evidence of an aquatic phase in Man’s early evolution

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Abstract

For over a century, otolaryngologists have recognised the condition of aural exostoses, but their significance and aetiology remains obscure, although they tend to be associated with frequent swimming and cold water immersion of the auditory canal. The fact that this condition is usually bilateral is predictable since both ears are immersed in water. However, why do exostoses only grow in swimmers and why do they grow in the deep bony meatus at two or three constant sites? Furthermore, from an evolutionary point of view, what is or was the purpose and function of these rather incongruous protrusions?

In recent decades, paleoanthropological evidence has challenged ideas about early hominid evolution. In 1992 the senior author suggested that aural exostoses were evolved in early hominid Man for protection of the delicate tympanic membrane during swimming and diving by narrowing the ear canal in a similar fashion to other semiaquatic species. We now provide evidence for this theory and propose an aetiological explanation for the formation of exostoses.

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