Eyes and brains

Brain and Eye - PaleoneurologyThis week, with a team coordinated by Michael Masters (Montana Tech), we have published a correlation analysis to evaluate the relationships between eye, orbit, and brain, in adult modern humans. As already evidenced in other studies in anthropology and primatology, the correlation between eye size and orbit size is very modest. Therefore, the orbit is really a poor predictor of the eye morphology, at both evolutionary and species-specific level. There is also a minor size correlation between the eye and the occipital cortical areas, probably because of their shared visual functions. However, there is also a similar (and even higher) correlation between eye and frontal lobe. In this case there is a structural issue: the frontal lobes lie just above the orbits, generating a spatial interaction between facial and neurocranial elements. Within hominids, this spatial proximity between prefrontal cortex and eyes is generally observed only in modern humans and Neandertals. These two taxa, possibly because of such vertical constraint, enlarged their frontal lobes mainly laterally. These correlations between soft and hard tissues, when dealing with inter-specific trends, can be useful to make inferences on brain proportions based on osteological evidence, providing an heuristic tool for indirect paleoneurology.

So, back to modern human evolution, the situation of the eye was pretty difficult: large eye (due to brain size increase), small orbit (due to facial reduction), upper constraints (the frontal lobes right on the orbital roof), posterior constraints (larger and closer temporal lobes). And, in industrial Countries we can also add more fat between eye and bone. Hard times for the eyeballs, forced to minor deformations blurring images on the retinal screen: myopia. Luckily for us crossing the 40s, the brain stops growing, but the face does not: it grows bigger, giving more space to the eye, which can enjoy a more comfortable environment year by year.


Amano et al 2015 - AmudA new reconstruction of the Neandertal skull and endocast of Amud has been published by a team coordinated by Naomichi Ogihara, at the Keio University (Yokohama). They applied mathematical models to align the surfaces of the original fossil fragments (surface extrapolation). Thin-plate spline was then used to integrate the available anatomy from Amud with other Neandertals, namely La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 and Forbes’ Quarry 1 (shape interpolation). Modern skulls were used to smooth all together. This new reconstruction shows a skull that is shorter and wider than the former one. The basicranial areas, largely missing in this specimen, were the most difficult parts to interpolate, because of their complex morphology influenced by different independent factors. Amud is dated to 50-70 ka, with a massive cranial capacity: around 1740 cc.

Fronto-parietal highways

Caminiti et al 2015Roberto Caminiti and his colleagues have just published a very large and detailed review on the fronto-parietal network, comparing functional anatomy, histology, and connectivity in humans and macaques. The organization of the fronto-parietal system is similar in these two taxa, suggesting a shared conservative structure rooted in a long evolutionary history. However, there are also discrete differences, most of all at the intraparietal sulcus and in the precuneus. Because such differences were apparently put forward on a shared background, they support the hypothesis of Fred Coolidge about exaptation of the parietal lobes, as reuse of primitive characters to achieve new functions. Visuo-spatial integration and the eye-hand system are of course central in this perspective, but those parietal elements are also involved in different kind of processes ranging from consciousness to numerosity. As usually, we are supposing that macaques show a primitive organization, and humans a derived one. As recently discussed, such assumption is very general and it has no logic or experimental support, and caution is recommended in this sense. In fact, both macaques and humans could display derived characters, evolved independently. The review carefully considers also the human paleoneurological evidence, supplying a very complete image which effectively synthesizes at once more than ten years of works published by myself and by Simon Neubauer and Philipp Gunz.

Brain and braincase

Bruner et al  - JAnat 2015Parietal lobes are a main source of morphological variation within humans and within hominids. This month we have published a study on the relationships between bones and lobes, to evaluate how and how much such variation in the cerebral areas can influence the variation of the corresponding cranial points. There is a size correlation  between parietal bones and parietal lobes, but it is small. There is a lot of individual variation, most of all in the precuneus. Changes of the brain proportions do not seem to influence the spatial relationships of the bones. Therefore, when the boundaries of the parietal lobes change, the boundaries of the parietal bone do not. It is like the brain “slides” under the bones, without strict constraints due for example to the connective meningeal interface. So, the larger the parietal lobe, the more it approaches the frontal bone. Such lack of marked correspondence between bones and lobes suggest cautions when using cranial landmarks to estimate brain boundaries, like in neurosurgery or in paleoneurology. Now, two hypotheses can be put forward, taking into consideration that the growth of the parietal area in our species is characterized by a very early post-natal stage. First hypothesis: such lack of correspondence can be present since the beginning, and hence that early parietal bulging will separate the limits of the parietal lobe and bone. Second hypothesis: during that early stage parietal lobe and bone grow together (the latter in response to the former), but later stages of spatial changes in the anterior districts (frontal bone and lobe) alter their original correspondence. This study deals with modern humans, and it will be interesting to consider the same spatial relationships in other primates. Nonetheless, at least for Homo sapiens, we can say that between parietal lobes and parietal bones there is a good geometrical correspondence (overall curvature), a modest size correlation (length), and a variable spatial relationship (boundaries).


Victoriapithecus (Gonzales et al 2015)Macaques and chimps are still used in anthropology and neuroscience as “primitive models” for human evolution. This is of course a non-sense: all living species, after the divergence from a common ancestor with modern humans, have evolved and changed as humans did. The genus Macaca is as young as the genus Homo, and living macaques and living humans are recent species in evolutionary terms, approximately with a comparable age. The problem with chimps is that we miss fossils, so we ignore how and how much their lineages has changed. But we have more information on macaques, and in general on fossil cercopithecoids. A very detailed and informative study on the endocast of Victoriapithecus has been recently published, definitely a  stimulating and comprehensive article for primate paleoneurology. This Old World monkey, dated to 15 Ma, had a small cranial capacity and large olfactory bulbs, but a sulcal pattern similar to modern cercopithecids. This suggests two major points. First, in Old World monkeys sulcal complexity evolved before brain size increase. Second, brain morphology evolved in cercopithecoids and hominoids through distinct processes, mixing primitive traits, different mechanisms, specific adaptations, and some convergences. These results stress further the necessity of caution and of a proper evolutionary perspective when dealing with comparative primatology and human brain evolution: macaques (and chimps) are derived species as we are, with their own independent evolutionary histories. They can provide information on biological factors which are shared among our respective lineages, but it would be an error to think that their anatomy, physiology, or genetics, represent an ancestral condition.

Social brain

Lucy to LanguageI think Herbert Spencer was totally right stressing that humans are the ultimate problem of biology and the initial factor of sociology. Robin Dunbar’s Social Brain Hypothesis integrates information from many different fields to provide a comprehensive perspective on human brain evolution and its associated social context. Like gas molecules, it looks like individuals are not predictable in terms of behaviour but groups, indeed, are. The larger the group, the more the social responses and dynamics can be predicted by apparently simple rules, often based onto our primatological nature. Our brain biology supplies opportunities and constraints to our social networks. This book “Lucy to Language: the Benchmark Papers“, puts together about twenty review articles published in the last decade on the social brain hypothesis. This topic is definitely relevant and promising for every approach in evolutionary anthropology. This month I have published a review on this book, introducing issues in paleoneurology and cognitive archaeology which can be important to integrate these perspectives with evidence from the fossil record.

Visuospatial evolution

Descartes - Meditations metaphysiques 1641Visuospatial integration is essential in handling, tooling, simulation, and many specific tasks which are supposed to be crucial for human evolution. However, it may be even more important for theories on extended cognition, taking into account the relevance in coordinating the relationships among brain, body, and environment. This is something directly associated with concepts like embodiment, material engagement, and brain-artefact interface. And this is pretty intriguing when considering that the upper and medial parietal areas, which are major functional nodes of visuospatial integration, show a remarkable enlargement only in Homo sapiens. Together with Atsushi Iriki (Riken Brain Institute), we have now published a review trying to interlace all these issues: Extending mind, visuospatial integration, and the evolution of the parietal lobes in the human genus. We have tried to integrate topics in neurobiology, paleoneurology, cognitive archaeology, and comparative primatology, to understand why and how visuospatial integration may have been important, in our genus and in our species, for enhancing material engagement and embodying capacities. This article will be part of an issue of Quaternary International dedicated to the importance of “Material dimensions of cognition”. At the same time, the Journal of Anthropological Sciences is now publishing a second forum on the “three hands” of the Neandertals. The hypothesis of a mismatch between visuospatial functions and cultural complexity in this human species is further discussed with comments by Leee Overmann, Enza Spinapolice, Joseba Rios Garaizar, Ariane Burke, Carlos Lorenzo, and Duilio Garofoli. All the papers of the forum are free to download.

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