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Modern human brain originated in Africa around 1.7 million years ago

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The human brain as we know it today is relatively young. It evolved about 1.7 million years ago when the culture of stone tools in Africa became increasingly complex. A short time later, the new Homo populations spread to Southeast Asia, researchers from the University of Zurich have now shown using computed tomography analyses of fossilized skulls.
Skulls of early Homo from Georgia with an ape-like brain (left) and from Indonesia with a human-like brain (right). Credit: M. Ponce de León and Ch. Zollikofer, UZH

Modern humans are fundamentally different from our closest living relatives, the great apes: We live on the ground, walk on two legs and have much larger brains. The first populations of the genus Homo emerged in Africa about 2.5 million years ago. They already walked upright, but their brains were only about half the size of today's humans. These earliest Homo populations in Africa had primitive ape-like brains—just like their extinct ancestors, the australopithecines. So when and where did the typical human brain evolve?

CT comparisons of skulls reveal modern brain structures

An international team led by Christoph Zollikofer and Marcia Ponce de León from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Zurich (UZH) has now succeeded in answering these questions. "Our analyses suggest that modern human brain structures emerged only 1.5 to 1.7 million years ago in African Homo populations," Zollikofer says. The researchers used computed tomography to examine the skulls of Homo fossils that lived in Africa and Asia 1 to 2 million years ago. They then compared the fossil data with reference data from great apes and humans.

Apart from the size, the human brain differs from that of the great apes particularly in the location and organization of individual brain regions. "The features typical to humans are primarily those regions in the frontal lobe that are responsible…
Science X staff
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