John R. Napier was a British anatomist and primatologist renowned for his comparative studies of fossil primates and early hominids from Africa, and for his pioneering work on primate locomotion.
After medical training at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, Napier served as a surgeon in its orthopedic unit. From 1946 to 1967 he taught anatomy at various teaching hospitals and institutions in London, and during this period he became increasingly interested in applying his anatomical training to questions of primate evolution and functional morphology. His initial papers focused on the anatomy and function of the human hand and foot, and this culminated in his landmark contributions on the prehensile movements and grip types of the hand, published in the mid-1950s and summarized in his excellent popular book Hands (1980). In 1959, he turned his attention to the fossil record, with functional analyses of the forelimb of the early Miocene ape Proconsul and early hominid metacarpals from the South African Pliocene site of Swartkrans. This was followed by research on the postcranial remains of early hominids recovered by Louis Leakey from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. In 1964, in collaboration with L. S. B. Leakey and P. V. Tobias, Napier described a new species of hominid, Homo habilis, from Olduvai, which constitutes the earliest representative of the genus Homo. Napier’s interpretation of the prehensile abilities of the species, based on his study of the fossil hand bones, was the basis for the Latin name, which means “handy man.” During the 1960s and early 1970s he published a series of influential articles on primate locomotion, a field of investigation that he pioneered, including papers on the classification of primate locomotion, prehension and opposability of the hand, brachiation, and bipedality. In 1967 he coauthored the Handbook of Living Primates with his wife Prue Napier, which represented an important synthesis of the literature on primate taxonomy, biology, and behavior. This was followed in 1985 by their successful updated compendium, The Natural History of the Primates.
From the early 1960s onward, Napier was responsible for organizing the first primate biology research and training programs in the UK, as well as at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In 1967, he became the founding president of the Primate Society of Great Britain, the first such organization in the world. In addition to his specialist scholarly contributions, he was a successful and enthusiastic popularize of science, as a radio and television personality and as writer. His books The Roots of Mankind (1970), Bigfoot (1972), Monkeys without Tails (1976), and Hands (1980) demonstrate his abilities in this regard, as well as the breadth of his interests and expertise in primate evolution and comparative anatomy.
- Napier, J. R. (1970). The roots of mankind. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
- Napier, J. R. (1980). Hands. London: George Allen & Unwin.
- Napier, J. R., & Napier, P. H. (1967). A handbook of living primates. London: Academic Press.
- Napier, J. R., & Napier, P. H. (1985). The natural history of the primates. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.