Body Parts - What do we need sinuses for, anyway?
By Jocelyn Selim
Photography by Max Aguilera-Hellweg
DISCOVER Vol. 25 No. 06 | June 2004 | Biology & Medicine
the first chapter of The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin
roughly a dozen anatomic traits that he gleefully described
as “useless, or nearly useless, and consequently
no longer subject to natural selection.” The list
included body hair, wisdom teeth, and the coccyx—superfluous
features that served as Exhibit A in his argument that
humans did not descend from “demigods” but
rather from a long line of fur-insulated, plant-chewing
creatures that sported tails.
Darwin’s catalog of oddities was far from complete—our
bodies are littered with parts we don’t need. Some
are vanishing leftovers from our prehominid ancestors,
such as muscles useful for walking on all fours or hanging
from trees that appear in various atrophied forms. Others
are by-products of a natural redundancy inherent in human
sexual development, including nipples on men and the
tiny vestigial sperm ducts lurking behind the ovaries
of women. Then there are curiosities that, having outlived
their apparent usefulness, linger simply because there’s
no real reason to leave: What good or bad is hair on
the little toe—or even the little toe itself?
Nearly a century and a quarter after Darwin’s death,
science still can’t offer a full explanation for
why one outdated anatomic trait lingers in the gene pool
and another goes. Modern genomics research has revealed
that our DNA carries broken genes for things that seem
as though they might be useful, like odor receptors for
a bloodhound’s sense of smell or enzymes that once
enabled us to make our own vitamin C. In a few million
years, humans may very well have shed a few more odd
features. So look now before they’re gone.
A tiny pit on each side of the septum is lined with
nonfunctioning chemoreceptors. They may be all that
remains of a once extensive pheromone-detecting ability.
This trio of muscles most likely made it possible
for prehominids to move their ears independently
heads, as rabbits and dogs do. We still have them,
which is why most people can learn to wiggle their
Early humans had to chew a lot of plants to get enough
calories to survive, making another row of molars
helpful. Only about 5 percent of the population has
set of these third molars.
A set of cervical ribs—possibly leftovers from
the age of reptiles—still appear in less than
1 percent of the population. They often cause nerve
and artery problems.
A common ancestor of birds and mammals may have had a membrane for protecting
the eye and sweeping out debris. Humans retain only a tiny fold in the inner
corner of the eye.
A small folded point of skin toward the top of each ear is occasionally found
in modern humans. It may be a remnant of a larger shape that helped focus distant
This small muscle stretching under the shoulder from the first rib to the collarbone
would be useful if humans still walked on all fours. Some people have one,
some have none, and a few have two.
This long, narrow muscle runs from the elbow to the wrist and is missing in
11 percent of modern humans. It may once have been important for hanging and
climbing. Surgeons harvest it for reconstructive surgery.
Lactiferous ducts form well before testosterone causes sex differentiation
in a fetus. Men have mammary tissue that can be stimulated to produce milk.
Bundles of smooth muscle fibers allow animals to puff up their fur for insulation
or to intimidate others. Humans retain this ability (goose bumps are the indicator)
but have obviously lost most of the fur.
This narrow, muscular tube attached to the large intestine served as a special
area to digest cellulose when the human diet consisted more of plant matter
than animal protein. It also produces some white blood cells. Annually, more
than 300,000 Americans have an appendectomy. (see more in notes, below)
Brows help keep sweat from the eyes, and male facial hair may play a role in
sexual selection, but apparently most of the hair left on the human body serves
Often mistaken for a nerve by freshman medical students, the muscle was useful
to other primates for grasping with their feet. It has disappeared altogether
in 9 percent of the population.
Our closest cousins, chimpanzees and gorillas, have an extra set of ribs. Most
of us have 12, but 8 percent of adults have the extras.
A remnant of an undeveloped female reproductive organ hangs off the
male prostate gland.
Lesser apes use all their toes for grasping or clinging to branches. Humans
need mainly the big toe for balance while walking upright.
FEMALE VAS DEFERENS
What might become sperm ducts in males become the epoophoron in females, a
cluster of useless dead-end tubules near the ovaries.
More than 20 percent of us lack this tiny, triangular pouchlike muscle that
attaches to the pubic bone. It may be a relic from pouched marsupials.
These fused vertebrae are all that’s left of the tail that most mammals
still use for balance and communication. Our hominid ancestors lost the need
for a tail before they began walking upright.
The exposed tailbone of a male pelvis from the collection of 19th-century
anatomist George McClellan rests on a humble seat at the Mütter Museum.
The human coccyx is highly variable but is generally composed of three to
On rare occasions, infants are born either with no coccyx at all or with
tails. While some have suggested that the coccyx helps to anchor minor muscles
may support pelvic organs, surgically removing it has no discernible effect
The nasal sinuses of our early ancestors may have been lined with odor receptors
that gave a heightened sense of smell, which aided survival. No one knows why
we retain these perhaps troublesome mucus-lined cavities, except to make the
head lighter and to warm and moisten the air we breathe.
A cross section of a skull from the collection of Matthew Cryer, a doctor
and dentist whose Internal Anatomy of the Face was published in 1901, is
at the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Cryer
most likely used the skull to analyze the anatomy of paranasal sinuses, which
come in four sets: frontal (in the forehead), maxillary (beneath the cheeks),
and ethmoid and sphenoid (behind the nose). In animals with an acute sense
of smell, the sinuses are largely lined by olfactory tissue.
Worm-shaped ("vermiform") in primates & of uncertain function
... other than getting inflamed. Rabbits & some rodents have one & possible
reasons might be (1) reservoir for bacteria needed to aid in digestion (then
why don't others have it?); (2) some "gut-associated lymph tissue" might
aid in recognizing ingested antigens. Possibility number 2 is the most likely
advantage (if any) the appendix provides , especially in early development
(when it is at its relative largest size).