Earliest Homo Populations in Africa Had Primitive Ape-Like Brains – Just Half the Size of Today’s Humans

Comparison of Early Homo 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

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.

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.

Skull of Early Homo From Dmanisi, Georgia

Skull of early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia showing internal structure of the brain case, and inferred brain morphology. This has been revealed by computed tomography and virtual reconstruction. Credit: M. Ponce de León and Ch. Zollikofer, UZH

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 for planning and executing complex patterns of thought and action, and ultimately also for language,” notes first author Marcia Ponce de León. Since these areas are significantly larger in the human brain, the adjacent brain regions shifted further back.

Typical human brain spread rapidly from Africa to Asia

The first Homo populations outside Africa – in Dmanisi in what is now Georgia – had brains that were just as primitive as their African relatives. It follows, therefore, that the brains of early humans did not become particularly large or particularly modern until around 1.7 million years ago. However, these early humans were quite capable of making numerous tools, adapting to the new environmental conditions of Eurasia, developing animal food sources, and caring for group members in need of help.

Dmanisi Cranium Mounted for Synchrotron Tomography

Dmanisi cranium, mounted for synchrotron tomography at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France. Credit: Paul Tafforeau, ESRF

During this period, the cultures in Africa became more complex and diverse, as evidenced by the discovery of various types of stone tools. The researchers think that biological and cultural evolution are probably interdependent. “It is likely that the earliest forms of human language also developed during this period,” says anthropologist Ponce de León. Fossils found on Java provide evidence that the new populations were extremely successful: Shortly after their first appearance in Africa, they had already spread to Southeast Asia.

Brain imprints in fossil skulls reveal evolution of humans

Previous theories had little to support them because of the lack of reliable data. “The problem is that the brains of our ancestors were not preserved as fossils. Their brain structures can only be deduced from impressions left by the folds and furrows on the inner surfaces of fossil skulls,” says study leader Zollikofer. Because these imprints vary considerably from individual to individual, until now it was not possible to clearly determine whether a particular Homo fossil had a more ape-like or a more human-like brain. Using computed tomography analyses of a range of fossil skulls, the researchers have now been able to close this gap for the first time.

Reference: “The primitive brain of early Homo” by Marcia S. Ponce de León, Thibault Bienvenu, Assaf Marom, Silvano Engel, Paul Tafforeau, José Luis Alatorre Warren, David Lordkipanidze, Iwan Kurniawan, Delta Bayu Murti, Rusyad Adi Suriyanto, Toetik Koesbardiati and Christoph P. E. Zollikofer, 9 April 2021, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz0032

34 Comments on "Earliest Homo Populations in Africa Had Primitive Ape-Like Brains – Just Half the Size of Today’s Humans"

  1. “…Homo Populations in Africa Had Primitive Ape-Like Brains…”
    So what’s new…, The homo populations of San FranCrisco, Hollywoodie, New York, Tel Aviv and wherever modern homos seem to congregate nothing’s changed, they STILL have small brains which explains why they can’t get on with females so they fall in love with another man’s a hole!

  2. Anthony Allen | April 12, 2021 at 3:26 am | Reply

    Yuri Nate is an insecure @sshole !

  3. All this speculation kinda makes it hard to take you serious as a scientist…..

  4. I continue to be perplexed by the term “ape-like” brain…ALL hominids, homo sapiens and chimpanzees are, in fact, apes. We need a new term…

  5. critical race theory | April 12, 2021 at 7:57 am | Reply

    not surprising at all tbh

  6. So our ancestors really were basically bipedal chimps. lOL

  7. Apes then were Apes as are Apes today
    I remember writing down the scientific names of so called missing links that National Geographic published a couple decades ago. Missing links it said. I went on line and typed in those scientific names and found out there were anthropologists that disagreed with the missing link statement that National Geographic published. Give me a break from your wishful BS please. Disinformation is not acceptable but misinformation is just that. Which one are you?

    • A couple of decades ago? Science is not static. Nor is it absolute. It is dynamic! New research moves it ahead. So not misinformation, rather not up to date information.

  8. Yeah,where in this article do they explain the evidence of ape and human DNA being the same. So confusing this THEORY of evolution must be. Human DNA and ape DNA are not the same and cannot be crossed. Why can’t we follow the scientific method? Haven’t there been experiments to cross human and ape DNA? Animals aren’t humans and never can be according to real DNA science. Humans can and have come to act like animals we are seeing that in the present society.

  9. Now we can say this discover confirm Darwen theory that human origin is ape or monkey, if this true it means that they human is not created by GOD /SO THIS IS controversial or not

  10. Yuri has studied homos extensively.
    Top to bottom you might say.

  11. Yuri Nate you’re almost right however early humans probably did any hole they could but why act like a douchebag about it

  12. … “The human brain as we know it today is relatively young”
    I know but, would it be better if it is like>
    “The human brain, as we know it today, is relatively young”…

    • …”Because these imprints vary considerably from individual to individual, until now it was not possible to clearly determine whether a particular Homo fossil had a more ape-like or a more human-like brain. Using computed tomography analyses of a range of fossil skulls, the researchers have now been able to close this gap for the first time”.
      … but we wont be sure 100% till you have real specimens, though it is potentially unethical,…
      .the content is important too, not only the size…

  13. Some real morons making comments. Clearly more of the ape-brain variety.

  14. James L Rhymer Jr | April 14, 2021 at 5:36 am | Reply

    The existence of the “theory” of Evolution, and so-called evidence of dinosaurs, are but some of the lies that we are fed by a world that denies the existence of spirits, though everything before science was spirit. These same individuals are the ones who deny the existence of spirits/God though there’s ample evidence that spirits/angels exist; for example, the Voodoo culture of Benin, Nigeria. So why does the two worlds exist separately? Why does science continue to deny the spiritual while promoting lies like evolution? I think the evidence is clear why. The world is not of God and will never be.

  15. Malcolm Crawford | April 14, 2021 at 1:00 pm | Reply

    I agree with Tim’s comment. Or, if it walks like a duck and looks like a duck then maybe it’s a duck. So with an ape’s brain. Was it really a hominid brain after all?

  16. Another racist using terms to make Africans seem undeveloped, however everyone has the same size now so existing Africa did not make brains grow. This is sickening.

  17. I think Yuri Nate actually thinks he’s funny.

  18. Nothing to do with racism. Racism is as dumb as saying homo erectus died out years ago. Obviously a homo pernamently erect leaves no chance of making offspring

  19. …”when the culture of stone tools in Africa became increasingly complex”
    Yeah, but what caused it, was it a mutation, which and why did it happen, was it just simple random event or perhaps it was caused by viruses or whatever…

  20. …”It follows, therefore, that the brains of early humans did not become particularly large or particularly modern until around 1.7 million years ago.”…
    How, what, why?

  21. … as scientist start to create(that we know of) different types of hybrids, it would be useful to figure out some other things. Even though, genes are not simple, there are some potentials…

  22. How can you be so comfortable with these lies you spread. The skull on the left is CLEARLY and IRREFUTABLY an ape skull. Stop lying to people and telling 1 truth that then is negated by thousands of lies. You people have no shame. The more you keep lying to people and telling them they are basically just monkeys, the more mass shootings and suicides and murder suicides we will see. This lie is 100% responsible for the degradation of our civilization and the morality of individuals. Why not go out and slaughter as many people as possible then kill yourself if you are just an “accidental monkey” with no purpose. Think about it. Lay your hatred for God aside and just present FACTS about what you abserve, not your opinion of what you observe based on how it fits into your worldview. People PLEASE don’t fall for these lies. Look at the evidence left on this earth for YOURSELF and you will see NOTHING has EVER EVOLVED INTO SOMETHING ELSE. Dogs have always been and always will be dogs no matter what breed or species. Same for all other families of God’s creatures. Please don’t believe this outright ILLOGICAL NONSENSE PLEASE, FOR YOUR OWN GOOD. IM PLEADING WITH YOU, THINK FOR YOURSELF AND WAKE UP!!!!!

  23. Gregory Prevenslik | April 17, 2021 at 11:53 pm | Reply

    “Divide et Impera” is strong here. Keep it up. Whoever started this mess doesn’t even have to work at it anymore.

  24. … and how does one species evolve into another one, what is the level of mutations that need to happen and how many specimens of that evolved species need to exist, because for an healthy offspring one need to have at least, well I can’t remember this one, but I would love that one would get the point. I will hope, and put some faith into it too…
    … But, no it still doesn’t make sense…
    … it must be virus or something like that…

    • … because if you have too many mutations the old species would not be able to have offspring with another species, and we know that there is a difference in the number of chromosomes between monkey and humans, those changes would never lead to a different species or would it be possible to have another species that were stepping stones toward humans… not sure about that, though… not convinced after all…I guess way too much links are missing…

      • … and things tend to move toward an average over time, and in another words it will go around and around…

  25. I wish I could be more surprised by the hate filled willful ignorance here, but sadly I am not. But, I feel like I need to set the record straight on a few things, so here goes:

    Human and chimp DNA was analyzed years ago and is 99% similar. We ARE animals, but that doesn’t give us the right to cruelty.

    As for “racism”, this article is saying “modern human brains evolved in Africa and spread from there”. This all happened several orders of magnitude in time before the oldest known civilizations, so all humans we have any sort of idea of as human are of the big brained “modern” variety, and that trait is almost certainly from our African modern human ancestors. Rather than evidence in favor of racism, this is evidence of commonality and suggests we owe some reverence to our common place of origin in Africa. We are all, indeed, much more alike than we are different.

    As for “dogs will always be dogs”… Coyotes and wolves are dogs but foxes aren’t. Clearly they had a recent (in the history of life) common ancestor though. Species change, and separate. Dogs probably won’t always be dogs.

  26. Just because they’re half the size doesn’t make them primitive. Choose your wording better University of Zurich.

  27. This article is funny. Certain races always trying to take away from the African or black people in some type of way always trying to deprive them of their abilities because they know that their capable of so much more that’s why people are so afraid to give them a fair stand because they would Excel faster than any other race

  28. Wow, the comments alone were worth the read.

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